Asean must get back to basics ahead of US summit: Jakarta Post contributors

JAKARTA (The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network): The world order as it is reeks, rather ironically, of a long string of C’s. Perhaps that is the “best” that a “world order” can produce anyway: C’s.

Why? No matter how altruistic a country can be, the world just does not appreciate what a country has done. If anything, the world tends to forget amazing gestures of magnanimity.

Take the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances in 1994, for example. Under the memorandum, Kyiv actually surrendered 1,700 nuclear warheads to Moscow, an act that was witnessed by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and of course, Ukraine. In exchange, Russia was not to violate the territorial security and sovereignty of its pan-Slavic cousin.

To be sure, this was one of the most momentous acts in world history, as Ukraine was the second largest nuclear power before the fall of Soviet Union on Dec 26, 1991.

Yet, knowing that it could not maintain such a large nuclear stockpile without undermining its national and international security, Kyiv took the higher moral decision to surrender its nuclear weaponry, backed by the US’ Nuun-Lugar Act that promised assistance in developing the Ukraine economy. Ukraine did not hold the world to ransom. The economic aid it received then would be equivalent to US$520 million today.

Other than the Marshall Plan, which provided aid to help rebuild war-ravaged Western Europe in 1948-1950, before it was separated from Soviet influence with the construction of the Berlin Wall – which collapsed in 1989 – the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) literally did not do much.

Rather, the world was ostensibly left to drift back and forth between either the market and import substitution, as expounded by Argentinian economist Raul Prebish – who proposed a New International Economic Order (NIEO) in the mid-1970s – or a state-based industrial subsidy programme.

To be sure, the latter was bankrolled by Japan, South Korea and the member states of European Union (EU), not excluding the member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), all of which had quietly and subtly been expanding their public expenditure.

This led to the likes of keen political economists, such as Dani Rodrik, to ask if a free market was indeed the magic recipe, if the public finances of the various developed countries should show a marked decrease.

Yet beginning in the mid-1960s, all the statistics showed that the state was a major economic actor in the domestic and international markets. What the world was facing, for the lack of a better word, was not an unfettered global economy but a hyperpolitical one.

After all, the world was stuck with a system in which the key powers of 1945, including those that had clearly declined in their absolute influence, still insisted on hanging on to their positions as a permanent member of the UNSC and continue to wield veto power.

Decisions made at the UNSC are legally enforceable; those made at the UN General Assembly are not. The platitudes, including the emergency special session on March 2, themed “uniting for peace”, carried what prominent international jurist Rosalyn Higgins calls “soft laws”.

They can name and shame a country for its repugnant behaviour. But no amount of votes in the UN General Assembly can produce anything verging on a legally binding decision to hold a member state to account, as marked by Russia’s territorial violation of Ukraine on Feb 24.

But what is the long list of C’s that characterises the current world order at the systemic and sub-systemic level?

One can perhaps begin with corruption, as in the case of Sri Lanka. Overexuberant borrowing in US dollars has brought Sri Lanka, one of the most important countries in the Indian Ocean, on the verge of total collapse.

Sri Lanka is a sub-systemic crisis, as the world is too consumed by the war between Ukraine and Russia to even pay much attention to it.

However, whether it is a sub-systemic problem – in the context that the collapse of Sri Lanka will not immediately bring about the downfall of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) – or potentially a systemic one – on the assumption that Russia swoops in to rescue Sri Lanka -the pan-Slavic conflict between Ukraine and Russia will have expanded its geographical imprint from Eastern Europe to the Indo-Pacific theatre.

Another C that has rendered the world order weaker, not stronger, is the lack of the concept of rule of law, let alone a code of conduct.

The fact that it has been 21 years since the code of conduct for the South China Sea – and that it has yet to find a legally enforceable template – is the clearest sign yet that the world is not ruled by brains but by brawn.

To the degree that the world remains cavalier on the importance of decarbonising it, then the spectre of climate change, where the global temperature cannot be suppressed below 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050 as agreed among all signatories of the Paris Agreement, then the impending US-Asean Summit in May will again be a missed opportunity.

This will be the case if the G-20 leaders and their sherpas talk about acts of aggression in: 1) Eastern Europe, especially the aggressive and irresponsible behaviour of President Vladimir Putin; 2) a pandemic that has become an endemic; and 3) an all-round price increase due to the supply chain disruption caused by factors 1 and 2.

If anything, the US-Asean summit should be used to understand the views of some of the C-suite leaders that work alongside President Joe Biden. Asean needs to get to know Kurt Campbell anew and not as the Campbell who served as deputy to then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

Why? Campbell once wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal that the US needed to remove “strategic ambiguity” with a fourth Shanghai Communique. Campbell also wrote another book, Hard Power (2016). Yet, he is now the Indo-Pacific coordinator of the Biden administration who reports to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. Campbell also leans heavily on Rush Doshi, his coauthor of The Long Game.

The US-Asean summit should lead to an important breakthrough ahead of the Asean leaders’ summit in Phnom Penh, and the related year-end Asean summit, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok and the Group of 20 summit in Bali.

As the Indonesian phrase goes, tak kenal maka tak cinta: you cannot love someone you do not know.

*** Phar Kim Beng is the founder CEO of the Strategic Pan Indo-Pacific Arena and an associate fellow of Mae Chew is a strategic research fellow.