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Maintaining what's left of rules-based order - Thitinan Pongsudhirak

For anyone who is alive today, the world as we know it has never been so stirred and shaken. The international order based on a common set of institutions, rules and norms that used to be widely cherished and universally beneficial is unravelling before our collective and helpless eyes. From an emerging United States-China trade war and Beijing's militarised occupation of the South China Sea to Russia's revanchist annexation of Crimea, world order over the past several years has been breaking down. Those who once set the rules, principally the US, are breaking them, while aspiring new rule-setters, mainly China, have not found sufficient international reception. Rule-takers, such as the smaller states in Asean, suffer the most when set rules lose cohesion, lustre and abidance.

Trends and patterns suggest the global status quo is likely to deteriorate, not quite to the point of everyone for himself and herself but approaching a state where every nation-state is in it for itself at the expense and sometimes in the absence of broader cooperation and collaboration. The spectre of war and conflict is not in the immediate offing but prospects for continued peace and prosperity are gloomier now than at any time over the past seven decades.

For Thailand and its Asean neighbours, when the world outside encounters headwinds, their regional neighbourhood should serve as a refuge and offer some reassurance, insulation and a semblance of security. But this is not the case because Asean has been adrift, picked apart by bigger powers. Asean's internal divisions over the intentions and interests of greater powers from outside the region need to be narrowed for mutual benefit and downright survival. What's left of the rules-based order must be upheld, promoted and nurtured. This is a daunting challenge.

In the world trading system, for example, multilateral negotiations are a thing of the past. The Doha Round never really got off the ground and remains moribund. World trade has contracted in recent years. Bilateral free-trade deals have grown as a second- and third-best outcome. Meanwhile, tariffs are back in vogue, led by the US administration under President Donald Trump in its retaliation against a Chinese trade surplus and alleged protectionism. China, for its part, has benefited substantially from the system since it joined the World Trade Organisation more than two decades ago without opening up its own economy as expected. The US-China trade tensions will likely worsen because both are locked into tit-for-tat dynamics, reinforced by domestic constituencies.

While the global trade outlook looks unpromising, Asean's regional economic growth still remains the fastest growing in the world, at a 5% growth trajectory clip per year for the foreseeable future. Intra-regional investment is now on par with intra-regional trade, at just under 25%. What Asean members can do is to trade more among themselves and harness growing internal investments in the region for greater economic integration. Boosting regional economic integration, through trade, investment and connectivity, is a win-win for Asean. No Asean member opposes it, and no major power intends to undermine it. Closer economic enmeshment would also give Asean more organisational confidence to deal with other issue areas.

One such area is regional security. The United Nations, though its Law of the Sea, provided a legal basis for Asean to protect and safeguard its interests vis-à-vis outside powers. But when the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration decided in favour of the Philippines against China's construction and occupation of South China Sea's reefs and rocks, the verdict was set aside due to Asean's internal divisions. The South China Sea is so thorny an issue now that it has impeded a number of Asean's joint statements over the past six years.

While the South China Sea will remain a sticking point for some time, Asean should focus on other areas where it can stand together to rebuild trust and regain momentum, particularly the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM)-Plus process where Asean is the main broker among its ten members along with China, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, India, the US, and Russia. The ADMM-Plus has concrete results among regional militaries in combatting common challenges, such as Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief. The ADMM-Plus has also been a win-win for Asean and its main partners. No major power opposes the work plans and directions of ADMM-Plus.

To rebuild trust and regain regional momentum, leadership and camaraderie is critical. When Singapore pulled off a diplomatic coup by recently hosting the unprecedented summit between President Trump and North Korean President Kim Jong Un, it was notable for one conspicuous absence. Asean was nowhere in the mix, even though Singapore is the current Asean chair. Asean is now at risk from ongoing tectonic realignments in Northeast Asia around the Korean Peninsula and across the Pacific and Indian oceans via the so-called "free and open Indo-Pacific" (FOIP).

Both Asean's rotating chair and secretary-general need to be forceful and take risks. Perhaps the newly elected prime minister of Malaysia, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, can give a temporary shot in the Asean arm with his charisma and seasoned diplomatic experience. Asean's Singapore chairmanship this year needs to achieve concrete results in a forward fashion because Thailand's turn at the helm next year may be problematic again due to its unsettled domestic political situation.

If Asean becomes more ineffectual and impotent as the instrumental bridge-builder and broker of regional peace and stability due to the lack of leadership and unity, it will not just be its 10 members that will suffer a loss of centrality and leverage. The major powers themselves up and down the East Asian landmass and across the two oceans would bear the brunt in the end for rising tensions without a third-party platform to mitigate and narrow their differences. This is a time for Asean to hang together by maintaining what's left of the rules-based order because the world outside will get worse. It should also be in the interest of the bigger powers to play by the rules as we know them and leave Asean alone, lest they no longer have a buffer and intermediary to alleviate and prevent potential conflict and confrontation.