A talking shop – or an EU of the east?

Philip Bowring asks if the Association of South-East Asian Nations has a future

Last year Asean celebrated its 40th anniversary, but the ten-state grouping must now face the question of whether its evolution has stalled. The organisation's response to the catastrophe unleashed by Cyclone Nargis on Burma in May this year was hesitant and tardy, and its condemnation of the Burmese regime's crackdown last September was both late and ineffective. Is there the remotest chance of it becoming an EU of the east?

At one level Asean represents the apparent triumph of a market-oriented, pro-western model. It was founded in 1967 as an anti-communist bastion when the Vietnam War was at its height and the Cultural Revolution was in full swing. The recently independent nations of south-east Asia were feeling vulnerable, and so Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore formed the new group, with Brunei joining on full independence in 1984.

Communism's triumph in Indochina and the subsequent Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia helped hold the initial members together - as did the durability and golf-course camaraderie of its leaders Suharto, Ferdinand Marcos and Lee Kuan Yew, with their joint belief in the value of the US military presence. A sense of shared identity, too, came from rapid economic growth in most of the countries, fuelled by foreign trade and investment (particularly from Japan) and from the ethnic Chinese business in the region. Asean solidarity also helped keep border disputes from getting out of hand.

The 1990s brought a shift. The Cambodian War was settled and Vietnam focused on development and the gradual transition to a market economy. Asean then pursued two, not necessarily compatible goals. One was to bring all countries of the region into the grouping, and the other to enhance economic co-operation. In 1992 it launched a preferential tariff scheme with the ultimate goal of becoming a free-trade area. But with Asean driven by Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad, geographical expansion took precedence over issues of compatibility, leading to the admission of the three Indochina states and, most controversially, Burma.

Free-trade goals then had to be pursued on a two-tier basis - fast track for the original members and slow for the new ones, which had very different economic systems. Last year the association adopted a charter of common commitments and standards and a mechanism for sanctioning breaches. But it is all very vague.

Meanwhile, intra-regional trade has grown very fast, but mainly because of developments in global manufacturing driven by Japan, Korea and Taiwan, and by the emergence of China as a world trade giant. Asean is in the throes of a free-trade deal with China, but at the same time, individual members - Singapore in particular - have made bilateral deals with countries from Mexico to New Zealand. This "noodle bowl" of trade pacts creates confusion and undermines Asean's broader goals.

Some sense of shared community (generally excluding Burma) does exist, at least among the political, bureaucratic and business elites. The rise of China should give renewed political impetus - though Beijing tries hard to keep substantive issues on a bilateral basis. For the first time Asean has a secretary general, the Thai former foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan, with a high profile and active agenda. The annual Asean Regional Forum has become a significant event, though seemingly endless meetings and a shortage of obvious achievements often give it the appearance of a talking shop.

The Asean area - predominantly Malay, but heavily Indian-influenced - has a common history and culture that transcend differences of religion and language. But weaving these into a coherent organisation with well-defined goals is tough; as is persuading individual countries to surrender a mite of independence for the greater good.

Philip Bowring is a columnist for the International Herald Tribune and a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Tyranny and tourism

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times