[Overseas view]Learning from Asean

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[Overseas view]Learning from Asean

South Korea is a modern economic miracle. Asean is a modern political miracle. Both have met, but fail to understand each other. Hence, there have been many missed opportunities for each to learn from each other. If the learning begins, both could gain valuable lessons.
South Korea began its economic development far behind many Asean countries. In the 1950s, as economists looked ahead, they forecast that the Philippines would succeed. By contrast, South Korea was recovering then from both the long Japanese occupation and the brutal Korean War. Its prospects looked dim.
Fifty years later, it is clear South Korea has succeeded where the Philippines has failed. Despite its progress in some areas, the Philippines remains firmly a developing economy while South Korea has catapulted itself into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD. It is a wonder that so few Asean intellectuals are asking the obvious questions: Why did all of the Asean countries (with the possible exception of Singapore) fail to match the development success of South Korea?
The only Asean country that seems to be on an economic trajectory to replicate Korea’s success story is Vietnam, one of the last Southeast Asian countries to join Asean. Vietnam’s leaders have studied the East Asian success stories better than most Asean countries and are carefully implementing many of the best practices from the success stories of Japan, Korea and China.
Even fewer Asean citizens are aware that despite the pain it suffered in the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the continuing political uncertainties in the 1990s, South Korea has continued its steady upward climb, moving even more firmly into the first league of global economies. The time has come for the Asean countries to do a serious study of the Korean economic miracle. Such a study could significantly enhance Asean’s economic prospects.
The good news here is that Asean has some valuable lessons to offer in return to South Korea. Any objective study of whether Northeast or Southeast Asia would lead the way in regional cooperation would have suggested Northeast Asia. The economies there are far more developed. Two Northeast Asian countries, Japan and South Korea, are OECD members. China is about to enter the first league of global economies, too. Culturally, there is greater similarity among Northeast Asians than Southeast Asians. Yet in November, Asean leaders will meet in Singapore to celebrate 40 years of regional cooperation and launch a new chapter in Asean cooperation with a new charter, whereas Northeast Asian countries have not even taken the first step of setting up an Association of Northeast Asian Nations (Anean) to match what Asean has done. Northeast Asia is at least 40 years behind Southeast Asia in fostering regional cooperation.
The success of Asean was not pre-ordained. Most British historians dismissed the possibility of Southeast Asia coming together because they believed the region was the Balkans of Asia, destined for eternal strife. Indeed, Southeast Asia is even more Balkanized than the Balkans of Europe, as it has a far greater diversity of religion, culture, language, ethnicity and even colonial experiences. All the major global religions can be found in Southeast Asia. If indeed a global clash of civilizations is imminent, Southeast Asia should have been the perfect launching pad. Instead, Southeast Asia has provided the most successful example of regional cooperation in the developing world.
Just as Southeast Asians were shocked to learn that Hyundai had beaten its well-established German and Japanese competitors, most Koreans would be equally shocked to learn that in some ways Asean has been more successful than the European Union, which has long set the gold standard on regional cooperation. The EU has been successful inside Europe. But outside Europe, indeed just next to its own geographical borders with North Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and the Caucasus, the EU has failed to promote either political harmony or economic growth. Indeed, the EU is in many ways an economic giant but a diplomatic dwarf in failing to provide any real leadership to resolve the many political problems emerging on its doorstep.
Korean scholars should therefore stop looking at the EU and study the Asean experience more carefully. One big lesson Asean provides is that regional cooperation is best launched by weaker rather than the stronger states. Within Asean, Indonesia is a giant. With its 220 million people, it makes up almost half the population of Southeast Asia. Yet Asean was launched in Thailand in 1967. Many path-breaking initiatives were later led by smaller countries such as Malaysia and Singapore.
Relative weakness is therefore an asset rather than a liability in promoting regional cooperation. Some Koreans believe the Korean people are unfortunate to be squeezed by two giants, China and Japan.
But giants like China and Japan (unlike France and Germany in the EU) cannot provide diplomatic leadership. Their huge size creates natural suspicions. To make matters worse, Chinese and Japanese officials distrust each other’s initiatives.
This, therefore, provides a real political opportunity for relatively weaker Northeast Asian countries like South Korea and Mongolia. Both should work together and launch a proposal for an Anean, starting initially with a very modest agenda of economic and social cooperation, just as Asean did in 1967.
When South Koreans apply their political acumen, they can achieve diplomatic miracles. South Korea’s success in getting China, Taiwan and Hong Kong into APEC was one such diplomatic miracle. It is now time for South Korea to be equally bold in its neighborhood and be the driver for regional cooperation. Right now, communist North Korea may seem an impossible obstacle for regional cooperation. This is where the study of Asean can hold valuable lessons. Until 20 years ago, Vietnam seemed to be a real threat to Asean. Today, it is one of the group’s most dedicated members. Miracles do happen. It is now time for South Korea to replicate the Asean experience in Northeast Asia.

*The writer is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

by Kishore Mahbubani
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