Discussion with former Foreign Ministers of Thailand, H. E. Kasit Piromya, and of Indonesia, H. E. Marty Natalegawa, and Dr Frederick Kliem, Visiting Fellow at RSiS, on the topic of Thailand’s ASEAN Chairmanship 2019, Part Two
The discussion was recorded at CPG’s International Conference on Thailand’s ASEAN Chairmanship 2019. This is the second part of the discussion. The first part discussed the history of ASEAN as well as its challenges in becoming more relevant for its people, as well as questions of ASEAN leadership. You can find the first part in the previous issue of COM.
The following text keeps most of the original audio and has only been lightly edited for smoother reading.
Dr Kliem: If you were preparing for the ASEAN chairmanship right now, what do you believe is the greatest risk to derail the ASEAN integration process in the future, what is the most immediate risk ASEAN faces, and what do you think is the greatest opportunity lying ahead for ASEAN?
H.E. Kasit Piromya: Let me begin this way: the difficulty for Thailand first of all is that if there were to be elections, according to the pronouncement of General Prayut, then halfway through the ASEAN chairmanship, we will have elected members of parliament. And they will have to approve all the agreements, even joint statements etc, but they may not be well-versed. And I have been saying this publicly before, I have been suggesting that from today onwards, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in particular has to go around to meet all the political parties to bring them on board. I think this is very important. Second, I think both Thailand and Indonesia when in our respective countries, have not neglected the civil society organisations. We even have a culture of financing ASEAN Civil Society meetings and we were the first to have some of the representatives meet the ASEAN leaders. Thus, to ensure some sort of progress and continuity with the political changes, I think the civil society and the political parties must be brought into this process. This is my answer to the first question.
H.E. Marty Natalegawa: In my view, it is important to recognise that whichever country chairs ASEAN, one of the priorities of the issues that preoccupies for the given year will be set in isolation. I mean, one can have all kinds of intentions and plans, but actually, a lot of the items are set beforehand, even within ASEAN itself – we have all kinds of ASEAN documents, ASEAN Vision 2025, for instance – and even the priorities set by the previous chair of ASEAN. I think it is very important not to start over every time we have a new year, a new chair, as if we began anew from scratch, from zero. There has to be change and a sense of renewal and a sense of something new. But at the same time, we need to be building things. It is very important for the incoming ASEAN chair to be mindful of the previous chairs’ projects and priorities so we can continue to develop and enhance them so there is no sense of starting from zero. And of course, at the same time, the various plans and visions that ASEAN had put on paper that are multi-year in nature, 2025 ASEAN Vision, for instance. Besides the known factors, the greatest challenge will be the unknown, you really cannot tell what is going to happen in Thailand itself, but Khun Kasit has already described some of the dynamics and some potential issues to be managed in anticipation in the region itself. Things happen around the world, and we do not even know what is to happen that will set and shape and mould the chair’s priorities in that year.
On the second issue and the issue of what ASEAN’s essential, most important, assets are: In my view, it is ultimately the people of ASEAN. Over the past 50 years, we have seen the kinds of transformation that have been made possible due to essentially the human resources, the possibilities that the region possesses. Those must be the key assets that we must take advantage of. But the chairman should be firm and clear. I am more and more reminded of how things are out there, that they are beyond any one particular country’s control. At the same time, we must have a script, a plan, and a capacity to address those issues, come what may.
H.E. Kasit Piromya: If I may turn the question around, I would ask if I were to be chair of ASEAN from the first of January, one of the first things that I would do would be to have an informal gathering of ASEAN leaders and foreign ministers to discuss the joint position to be announced to the world on the principle of the Indo-Pacific. A joint ASEAN position. Second, to announce to the world, which was mentioned in Singapore recently, that we will not join the quad, the military containment of China, by the US, Japan, Australia, India, and that we reject it, ASEAN as a whole. Third, we will have a joint declaration to say that any unilateral measures by China of the past years and in the future will not be acceptable. And I think we could do a couple of things like this, and even for the interests of the Indo-Chinese in Thailand, that we have a joint position on the development aid of China and that it must be transparent. So a couple of these joint positions would bring about respectability of ASEAN and it would strengthen its position internationally and regionally and within ASEAN. I think that is very important.
The second set of things that we must do urgently internally is to have a joint position on the Rohingyas. We can look at the old comprehensive plan of action for the Vietnamese boat people as a basis to go about finding a solution for the Rohingyas. One very important point is that Myanmar as a secession state to the British empire cannot cherry-pick things. So they have to include the Rohingyas as part of the citizenship of Myanmar. Second, on the question of the urban migration. I think Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Manila – we have about 40 nationalities of urban refugees coming from the Middle East and Africa. We also have quite a few Burmese political exiles. We must commit that we will not send them back to the respective capitals. Then we should have a joint plan within the next 5 months on the migrant workers – sort of a set of standard rules. We can use the Singaporean law on migrant workers, they have a very high standard. Each of the ASEAN countries should also have the national law on refugee protection and rights. And to have the immigration and related security law secondary to the humanitarian laws pertaining to the refugees and so on. These are some of the things that would enhance the position of ASEAN, minimise risks of what will be forthcoming.
Dr Kliem: Dear Excellencies, thank you very much for your insights and analysis thus far. I would now like to give the opportunity to our distinguished guests to pose questions to you.
Q: This has been a fascinating discussion. The topic is how to secure ASEAN’s governance for the future. Let’s distinguish vertical relevance from horizontal relevance. What I mean by that is making ASEAN more relevant to the 650 million people who live in SEA could actually complicate that kind of vertical relevance, could make it even more difficult for ASEAN to become horizontally relevant. Because that has to do with foreign policy, and there are societies in SEA that are internally divided and if you politicise ASEAN by bringing it down to the grassroots, it could make it even harder for ASEAN to develop with external powers like China and US. So, limiting ourselves to horizontal relevance? Let me put it this way: What is the single most important thing that ASEAN could accomplish at the level of horizontal relevance that would demonstrate to the world ASEAN is moving forward and advancing in SEA? My answer to that question would be the South China Sea. The South China Sea is more implicit than previously suggested. There is a balance implied, that on the one hand, if ASEAN rejects the quad, that is something China would like. To be sure, the quad is consisting of 4 democratic countries of some substantial economic size and so forth. Of all the members of ASEAN, one country that might fall on those grounds for membership of quad, would be Indonesia. And that is a sovereign decision that Indonesia would have to make. But that decision to reject the quad would delight China. And that decision would be balanced by your comment that this meeting of foreign ministers and so forth would then make a statement that China should not act unilaterally. Although you did not say unilaterally in the SEA, my view is that ASEAN can make the following statement, an abstract statement, that no single country should control the South China Sea, including the US, with the 7th Fleet and so on. That is a statement that could be made. If the track one currently occupies foreign ministers of SEA, then one can go to the younger persons group as a fall back. It would be less desirable, but it could be done. The former foreign ministers including yourselves would get together with the wisdom of the aged to make this kind of statement. Although we would rather it be done with active duty first track foreign ministers. Is this something that you Marty would support? Is this possible?
Q: So many years ago, ASEAN began considering not having majority but having qualified majority below summit level to speak on decision-making. What happened to that, and is it even possible?
Q: Which regional power do you think has the greatest potential to cooperate and deal with ASEAN as a region with regards both to economic development and defence and security?
H.E. Kasit Piromya: With regards to the first point, I did broach this with some of the foreign ministers about having informal groups, particularly since we are a bit concerned about the initiative of the leadership at present. But there is also the question of budget and other practicalities. Maybe we could increasingly use social media to correspond and come up with a joint position and then to urge and to help inform the public at large. We could link up with a lot of academic people that way too.
Second, I think the qualified majority would not work. We have been here 50 years with consensus, working behind the scenes, over a cup of coffee. Myself, I would prefer that type of approach. Once you have a qualified approach, that means it hardens the ASEAN process and it could lead to fractions. I have been afraid of this with regards to new ASEAN members getting together as some kind of sub-region. In itself, I would not like it.
On the third thing, first, I think it would not be good at all to put concentration on one particular regional power. The second point is that we have to fight the exportation of the system of the Chinese Communist Party. I think it would not be acceptable. It would be contrary to the fact that we are members of all UN conventions on political and social rights, but particularly to the spirit and letter of the ASEAN Charter. Laos and Vietnam would have to change and open up. That would be people-centred in a sense, and would strengthen ASEAN centrality. But as far as we have, two, at least, authoritarian regimes and a few autocratic elected regimes, then the respectability of ASEAN would not be forthcoming. We have to move in the open direction, and I think Indonesia has been able to demonstrate, not only to fellow ASEAN, but to the world at large, that 250 million people, many in slums, can go for an open society. The Suharto regime, the military regime, was much harsher than the Burmese or the Thai or the South Korean or the Taiwanese equivalent. But after 30 years, when the Indonesian people did decide to go into the open and they have become successful, I think that would give encouragement for other peoples as an example to emulate. If Indonesia could do it, why not the Vietnamese, Laos or Thai, to move in that way.
H.E. Marty Natalegawa: In the interests of time, I will classify the first and the third question in one reply because they are very much related. The horizontal-vertical delineation is interesting and thought-provoking. I have mentioned before that the internal-external nexus for international-regional, and I want to complete it by saying the regional-global nexus. In other words, there are several layers that we need to synergise. To be honest, in ASEAN, this has been a very new pursuit through the ASEAN Community Ideas, we were addressing essentially the internal-external domain, making the suggestion that we can have ASEAN that is empowered on internal issues while at the same time, continuing to respect human rights and the principle of sovereignty etc. But through the Bali Concord III of 2011, that speaks of ASEAN Community in a global community of nations, we were then moving to other facets, the other nexus, we were trying to suggest that ASEAN can also speak more coherently and more cohesively on global issues of common concern. Not quite just yet an ASEAN common external foreign policy, unlike the EU, but at least we gain the habit of thinking in this way. In other words, the delineation we recognise, and the effort has been to try to synergise and to deepen ASEAN internal cooperation and at the same time, have a collective external foreign issues outlook. But this is easier said than done because in many instances, many of us recognise, bringing on board internal consideration on external foreign policy issues often does not result in the most benign outlook. Nowadays, it is extremely common that internally-driven, domestic politics-driven foreign policy becomes domesticated because one only makes references to foreign policy issues when they have internal resonance, internal relevance, internal political points to be made. But it is a useful distinction, which in the past, ASEAN had tried to develop concurrently and in parallel development within and externally as well.
Specifically to the South China Sea issue, I am concerned, for instance, that the recent developments have been described as being progress, mainly to have a consolidated draft on the code of conduct. I am not privy to the draft, but from what I have gathered, one of the distinguishing features of the draft is that we have square brackets representing China’s positions and square brackets representing individual ASEAN member states positions. There is no longer ASEAN and China respectively. We have ten member states’ positions in one document, perfectly demonstrating the division. Here, there is a case of perfection being the enemy of the good. We have perfectly exposed ASEAN’s different positions. This is in sharp contrast to the past, where over the guidelines to the South China Sea, we paused for 9 years, simply because of ASEAN not wanting to allow China to be able to say before you meet us (China), ASEAN cannot meet amongst themselves. That was the only sticking point on the guidelines on the Code of Conduct, and for that, we were ready to stand still for 9 years because it is a matter of principle for us, that China cannot enter ASEAN’s internal workings and we made a principled position. But now, we are seeing, for the sake of wanting to have some evidence of progress, a willingness to dissect ASEAN in the way that we have, where the division is far more pronounced in some cases, but between ASEAN member states, rather than between ASEAN and China, for the sake of being able to say that we have a consolidated draft.
Now I am not sure what kind of impact people in capacities such as ours can make in terms of public expressions of common wishes and visions, but it is something that I am happy to be entrusted with for the future. But again, going back to the third question on regional powers: In my view, for Indonesia, we do not do ranking of what are the most important countries for ASEAN or for Indonesia, for that matter. Because in our view, power nowadays is not balanced, but it is rather the dynamic of powers, it is about the intent, and not about some measurable, quantifiable index of who is the most important and who is good. I know the term hedging has been used sometimes, but I am not a big fan of the word because it suggests opportunism and wanting to have some kind of equidistant policies. I use the term equilibrium rather than the term hedging or equidistant. But certainly, the geopolitical dynamics are something that ASEAN has to be more proactive on. Because on the Indo-Pacific for instance, we were early – this was actually one of the few examples where ASEAN was at the forefront. The East Asia Summit including India, Australia, New Zealand, right from the beginning, manifested ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific outlook. Ever since then, we developed it, we have the Bali Principles 2011, we have US and Russia join in 2011 to maintain the dynamic equilibrium. We kept abreast of the issue until 2014, but then for reasons only known to ASEAN itself, they chose to pause. Then President Trump happened in 2017, and he began to use the term, and suddenly now, again this is where perfection is the enemy of the good, ASEAN chairman statement in the latest summit. So candidly saying, there are several concepts on the Indo-Pacific that are out there, of which ASEAN’s is only one. To me, to have such a reality manifested and be described in an ASEAN document is an act of huge concession by ASEAN. We are levelling the playing field, abdicating a sense that we are ahead of the curve. Of course, there are very wide references to ASEAN centrality, openness and inclusivity. But those are treaties. For ASEAN to say that that there are other elements that make us only one among many in a forum that we control, that we lead is utterly unacceptable. And on the last point on decision making, I agree with Khun Kasit. It has been with us for the past 5 decades, going through so many difficult episodes. We have shown failings in many instances, such as Cambodia 2011, but those shortcomings of the practitioners of the time do not bring the whole house down simply because it is too difficult. Diplomacy is a difficult pursuit, trying to convince your counterpart to come around to your views, to have a common view, is never easy. However, it is fatalistic and defeatists to say that it is too difficult, let us make it easier, no need for consensus. Because you will have decisions made quicker, but there will be less sense of ownership in decisions. This may cause fractures in ASEAN as some countries will feel more in ownership of decisions than others, and may not follow decisions made by key member states.
Dr Kliem: I would like to sum up this conference and discussion by giving an analogy. As has been famously stated and widely discussed, to some ASEAN is ” a cow, not a horse”. But to me, ASEAN is an octopus. It is one of the most intelligent creatures in the world, it has long arms, it works hard, it is very active, but you cannot always see it because it is beneath the surface.