Donald Trump; meet ASEAN.
Who will prevail in an encounter between the Great Disruptor and the world’s most boring and protocol-conscious regional grouping?
I’m not betting on Trump.
Attending an ASEAN meeting is like trying to walk backwards through molten palm sugar.
After a while, you just give up and go with the flow… even Rodrigo “Dirty Harry” Duterte has had to behave in the face of ASEAN’s endless, sleep-inducing meetings.
Just over a year ago, I came up with the idea of relaunching my column – the one you’re reading now – as “Ceritalah ASEAN” (or “Tell Me a Story, ASEAN”).
The concept – meeting and interviewing ordinary people from across this region of 650 million – seemed really exciting.
However, as I got to work hitting the ground, listening to farmers, migrant workers, tourist guides, day-labourers and school teachers from Bassein, to Nam Dinh, Manado and Bacolod, I began to realize that I’d made a little mistake.
Southeast Asia is vibrant, sexy and alive.
ASEAN – as a supranational organisation – is turgid, pompous and comatose at best.
Essentially, ASEAN is the antithesis to everything that makes Southeast Asia interesting.
Its streets are raucous. Its unpredictable.
By comparison, ASEAN is elitist. It’s most comfortable in luxury hotels, resorts and convention centres. Its meetings are well-choregraphed talk-fests.
So while I’m still deeply fascinated, indeed in love with our region, its people and their stories, I find it extremely difficult to muster much enthusiasm for rooms full of bureaucrats.
I still think Southeast Asia’s huge, growing economy (which in 2013 had a combined GDP of USD2.4 trillion) – destined to be the fourth-largest in the world by 2050 according to McKinsey – has boundless potential.
But I gotta be honest: ASEAN has no poetry.
There’s no shared emotional connection – unless you can count durian-eating as a form of bonding.
Even our so-called “disagreements” – mostly over the South China Sea – have become predictable as China’s geopolitical and economic influence in our region grows.
Indeed, I would recommend any book (and a great many columns) on ASEAN as a sure-fire cure for insomnia.
More seriously: ASEAN has not really helped to provide the infrastructure as well as jobs that many of its 650 million people desperately need. That task is still very much on the shoulders of individual nation states.
And it has done even less to protect the most vulnerable of that 650 million (several of whom I encountered via this column) from abuse, exploitation and impunity – particularly the region’s migrant workers.
This is why I can’t conjure up any excitement for the upcoming gathering in Manila – even though it’s the 50th anniversary and Trump is apparently staying for the whole event.
Given what snore-fests these ASEAN meetings are – one has a feeling he will regret even showing up at all.
Quite frankly – it really doesn’t matter, in the grand scheme of things, whether he’s there or not.
Foreign policy pundits will argue that his attendance is to reassure the region that America isn’t “retreating from the Asia-Pacific/the World” – but is this really the case?
The barometer of American (and for that matter, Chinese) power and influence in the region – is hardly dependent on whether its leaders attend a boring round of speeches as well as an awkward “family photo” in the host nation’s traditional garb.
People cry “but it’s the optics.”
Trust me: this is one case where optics really, really does not matter – at least in the long run.
Perhaps it’s time we stop believing that our region’s peace, prosperity and reputation is at stake at every Summit.
But maybe I am being too hard on ASEAN.
It did, after all, achieve its purpose of keeping Southeast Asia relatively peaceful and neutral in the decades since its formation via the 1967 Bangkok Declaration.
And maybe boring IS good – at least with regards to ASEAN’s diplomatic agenda?
When the grouping was first conceived in the height of the Cold War, Southeast Asia was a cauldron with distrust, suspicion and outright violence at every corner – from Vietnam to Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia.
ASEAN provided a neutral platform to bring states together, to build trust and familiarity.
It’s been a long, arduous process with, arguably, the normalization of Indonesia and the Indochinese states at the core of its agenda.
The sheer, grinding tedium and rigidity of the ASEAN process – the communiques and set-piece speeches—exhausts all our leaders to such an extent that they often don’t have the energy or interest to scheme and plot against one another.
Instead, all they want to do is escape.
And maybe, just maybe: that should be enough for us in the region?
We can and certainly should focus on building business-to-business, media-to-media and people-to-people ties regardless of what happens in ASEAN.
Regional integration – especially in Southeast Asia – must be driven from the ground-up.
So Donald, don’t even try to be too clever.
ASEAN is structured and crafted to defeat and subsume grand-standing and point-scoring.
Grab a durian and head for the corner seat.