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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Nov 14, 2007

An imagined or imitation community?

The Asean Summit in Singapore this month has been preceded by an unprecedented tussle for the new identity of the regional grouping. What will emerge?
By Yang Razali Kassim, For The Straits Times

FIVE years ago, two Western authors wrote a stinging article in which they dismissed Asean as an 'imitation community'. This idea was borrowed and expanded from the concept of 'imitation states', coined by British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott.
Imitation states are new or young states struggling to overcome their weaknesses, including a sense of insecurity. They form regional groups for strength in numbers. But their sense of insecurity produces 'regional institutions that are essentially rhetorical shells that give form but no substance to domestic and international arrangements'.

Mr David Martin Jones and Mr Michael L.R. Smith, in their article in Orbis entitled Asean's Imitation Community, wrote: 'That, sad to say, is the case with the much-vaunted Association of South-east Asian Nations, a case study of what we might term an 'imitation community'.'

It should not be a surprise if such a view enjoys some currency, especially among scholars critical of Asean in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. But there are also many Asean champions who would dismiss the article's view as sweepingly extreme. I belong to those who take the middle ground - people who would not dispute the faults within Asean, but would not be so dismissive of it either.

Asean is not a perfect organisation. Indeed, it has its flaws, such as its fragile cohesion. But it is certainly not an imitation community - if by imitation is implied the blind and spineless parroting of what others do in diplomacy - certainly not after 40 years.

Yet, while Asean is not an imitation community, it does possess some attributes of an insecure organisation. Noninterference is a cherished principle partly because members still harbour latent distrust, if not fear, of each other despite years of nurtured camaraderie. There is also the fear of being sucked into the power play of the major powers.

But strangely, precisely because of this sense of insecurity, Asean has driven itself, after four decades, into a position of surprising strength. Believe it or not, Asean is today, in spite of its inherent fragility, a major player on the world stage, in a role that has so far not been equalled by other similar groupings.

Fifty years from now, when historians look back at the beginnings of the Asian Century, they will find the unmistakable handiwork of Asean in its rise. It is no mean feat to be able to influence and shape the political, economic and security architecture emerging in the Asia Pacific. It is no small achievement for six, and then 10, small and medium-sized states to have the collective will and skill to initiate major strategic moves to secure peace and stability and to rally the major powers to their turf.

Regional powers look to Asean's regular summits as a convenient platform to sort out their differences - which these powers would otherwise not deal with on their own. It is from this position of cumulative influence that Asean is beginning to deal with all its inherent weaknesses that the Jones-Smith school of thought has correctly pointed out.

Dare we say that this month, when Asean convenes its 13th summit in Singapore, its leaders will usher in the seismic move towards a new Asean - one of the 21st century? Or will it be held back by old habits?

To be sure, there is still a lack of clarity over what the future Asean would look like. But some outlines are emerging. The imagined community of the new Asean will not be an imitation community. It is a cohesive region that is united in diversity, developed and open, cosmopolitan and global, politically tolerant and respectful of human rights, with the citizens of Asean enjoying their civil liberties amid peace and stability.

Asean leaders hope the group's new charter will embody these rules and norms. But while the hardware - the institutions and processes - is easier to define and construct, the software is more elusive.

This software has to do with Asean's values, ideology and political culture. I suspect the new Asean will struggle with its soul before it evolves. Indeed, the run-up to the 13th summit is already showing signs of this inner struggle - between the 'old Asean' that is conservative, cautious and politically correct and one that is more vocal, more dynamic and more participative in each other's affairs. In other words, an Asean that is more democratic - or intrusive.

This inner struggle was triggered prematurely by the recent crisis in Myanmar, which tests not just its status as a nation-state but also the moral instincts of Asean as a regional association.

Myanmar forced the new Asean to surface when regional leaders broke their usual reticence to express revulsion over the junta's violent crackdown on the Saffron Revolution. By Asean's standard of decorum, this was unprecedented. But note how as soon as it was praised by the Western-led world community for this unusual display of moral courage, Asean then baulked at calls to suspend or sack its fellow member.

Its fledgling aspiration for a new political identity was immediately held back by its inherent instinct to check the limits of intervention.

What we are seeing in action now, even as Asean prepares for its summit, is actually a clash of two sets of norms or values. One is the current Asean way of doing things, which is shaped by the Asian approach or values of organising society and conducting relationships. This is reflected in the centrality of authority, order and collective welfare over individual rights.

The other is the set of norms that is influenced more by Western values of organising society and relationships, marked by the preference for individual rights, open societies and open markets.

This new dialectic influencing Asean's future continues to be debated by scholars. Mr Barry Desker of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, in a lecture at the University of Sydney in July, prefers to view this tension in terms of 'alternative philosophical traditions'. He refers to the Asian way as the emerging 'Beijing Consensus' of values revolving around China, the rising power whose world view is gradually finding its place in the international arena.

In contrast is the 'Washington Consensus', which Mr Desker uses in a broader sense to highlight the political agenda favoured by the United States in its interactions with developing countries.

The new Asean is only just emerging. It will take some time before its full identity will blossom in clear and unmistakable form. But the process of change is already palpable, although it is still not clear which set of values will dominate. My guess is that the future Asean identity will be a blend of both - or the Asian Way with Western, or international, characteristics.

The writer is a senior fellow with the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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