This month has seen the customary end-of-year ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) conference followed by the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) conference with the former being held in Singapore and the latter being held in Papua New Guinea. This year, while the ASEAN conference did not formally finalise the creation of the world’s largest free trading area the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – vital steps were in fact taken to make sure that when the RCEP is consecrated it will be done so in a way that is smooth, effective and instantly workable.
Beyond this, the recent ASEAN summit brought together the heads of state from members Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, The Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Brunei and Myanmar along with the Chinese, Indian and Japanese Premiers as well as the Russian President. Such a large scale meeting in terms of geopolitical scope clearly demonstrates that the economic dynamism present in ASEAN has not only attracted the attention but commands the deep and clear interests of the wider world as ASEAN’s multilateral trading agreements look set to expand in conjunction with the group’s increased commitments to the Belt and Road initiative.
But while ASEAN has evolved from a group of mainly anti-communist south east Asian post-colonial nations determined not to repeat the conflicts that threatened relations between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in the 1960s, into a highly modern group of partner nations committed to trade, peace and collective problem solving on a case-by-case basis, by contrast the newer APEC continues to lose steam as it has failed to evolve from its initial founding principles.
While ASEAN was founded by and for Asians, APEC was the brainchild of Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke who in 1989 sought to formalise a meeting place for nations with Pacific coasts (with the notable exception of the then Soviet Union) to discuss global economic affairs in the aftermath of the regular end-of-year ASEAN conference. While on paper, this sounded like not only a reasonable but a good idea, in reality, APEC was born out of Australia’s long term colonial mentality that seeks to impose its own European derived political and economic system on its south east Asian neighbours whom many Australians continue to openly deride as inferior by evoking the modern liberal equivalent of the 19th and early 20th century rhetoric of white British Liberal Imperial racism.
Indeed even within the context of the ASEAN driven RCEP, it was primarily Australian intransigence that delayed a final agreement on what is set to become the world’s largest free trading agreement. But beyond this, last week’s APEC summit was characterised in the global media as a dramatic staging ground for America’s unilateral hostility against China as not only did the US President conspicuously refuse to attend but his deputy Mike Pence refused to co-sign a single APEC declaration – something that has occurred for the first time since the group’s founding.
And yet the US brought the same attitude to the ASEAN conference which collectively ignored American stubbornness and Australian stalling tactics and instead forged ever more important agreements both among ASEAN members and with partner nations, the most notable of which were an enhanced China-Singapore trade agreement and further agreements to adopt the Philippine model for ASEAN-China dialogue over South China Sea issues under the leadership of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte who now leads ASEAN’s group on China connectivity issues.
This therefore raises an important question:
Why is it that the same US attitude present at both the ASEAN and APEC conference proved to be a storm in a teacup at ASEAN while it became the main talking point of an APEC conference that should have instead highlighted Papua New Guinea’s ability to pull off hosting such a large conference in spite of its status as a country early in its stages of economic development?
The answer to this question lies in the fundamental difference between APEC and ASEAN in terms of its founding, its purpose and its operational realities. ASEAN is an organisation that functions 24 hours a day, all year long as a political and economic body that helps to harmonise commerce within south east Asia, commerce between ASEAN and its expanding set of trading partners throughout the globe and an organisation which looks to help gradually build a co-equal single market area within the existing ASEAN free trading customs zone. By contrast, APEC is little more than a once a year talking shop more infamous for forcing heads of state to don foreign garments that often look ridiculous on half of the attendees than it is known for producing any tangible working multilateral agreements.
Secondly, while ASEAN has a clear purpose to help collectively promote prosperity and security among nations with a common destiny and in most cases a deeply shared history, APEC’s too diverse membership makes it prone to the same sort of permanent deadlock as the United Nations. The fact remains that such a politically and historically diverse group of nations will necessarily have a more difficult time agreeing on anything than a more tightly knit group of nations brought together by historic ties and a clearly defined sense of geographically derived purpose.
Finally, while the US and Australia are guests at ASEAN, their membership in APEC gives them an opportunity to conspire against the other overwhelmingly Asian members of the group in order to give an effective “white man’s veto” over an organisation that would operate far more harmoniously if the US and Australia reduced their increasingly negative impact.
APEC has come to represent the worst of Australian racially derived arrogance and American excess while ASEAN increasingly looks to adopt the gradualist, non-coercive approach that China takes with its Belt and Road partners. In this sense, the fact that ASEAN gets things done while this year’s APEC summit was just a more dramatic version of the deadlock that the group has faced for decades is an indication that while boisterous ambition makes headlines, gradualism and a rational approach to problem solving actually gets things done.