“I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space”, Hamlet said in his namesake play.
This year, ASEAN has been Thailand’s nutshell and its chairmanship has allowed the government to exercise a degree of leadership over an unwieldy coalition. Given that Thailand’s previous chairmanship of ASE1AN in 2009 was borderline disastrous, due to the disruption of the ASEAN Summit in Pattaya due to domestic political turmoil, Thai leaders can be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief at a job relatively well done.
Indeed, Thailand’s chairmanship has not been without achievements. Two successes in the ASEAN field in particular should be commended. One is the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which was an outline of the ASEAN vision on the emerging regional concept of the Indo-Pacific. Another is the successful conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) discussions, a free trade agreement that would encompass 15 countries (formerly 16, before India pulled out). Both these achievements have been well-covered in the media; a good piece on why the Outlook matters can be read here, while
But there was a second part to Hamlet’s statement: he could count himself king of infinite space, “were it not for the fact that I have bad dreams.” And two bad dreams indeed collided for Thailand, one which would have reminded all the players involved that the nutshell of Southeast Asia was indeed a very finite space, bounded by the true world hegemons.
Most notable was the elephant in the room: the United States. President Donald Trump, presumably distracted by the drama of impeachment, chose not to attend and instead appointed his National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien as the official US envoy. This was an unmistakable snub; the previous ASEAN summit was attended by Vice President Mike Pence. Most of the ASEAN leaders returned the snub at the US-ASEAN Summit, sending only their foreign ministers. Analysts noted feedback from ASEAN governments as “brutal”.
These worsening relations are harmful to both sides. Symbolism matters, and at a time when US-China competition is rising, Trump chose to display lack of care for friends and allies that the US badly needs. At the same time, ASEAN needs the US as the offshore balancer to China. As Lee Hsien Loong once said, “From time to time people put up a sign to say, ‘Yankee go home’, but they do not seriously mean that; if Yankee went home, they would be very sorry.”
With declining US relations, Southeast Asia’s greater reliance on, and susceptibility to influence by, China became markedly clear. This was underlined when Thailand prime minister and ASEAN chairman Prayut Chan-o-cha said the following in a press conference with Chinese premier Li Keqiang: “Ants can also help lions and monkeys. This is a Thai proverb.”
Ordinary Thai citizens were hardly satisfied at seeing their country being described by their own prime minister as a tiny insect aiding the Chinese lion. A popular cartoon was circulated of how 20 years ago, Thailand had tried to be one of the Asian tigers, and now its leaders aspired to be a mere ant.
Outrage, however, cannot hide the honesty behind Prayut’s statement. The dynamic of US distance and Chinese influence played out in several ways this year in ASEAN. Take, for example, the conclusion of RCEP itself. As Foreign Policy stated bluntly, “RCEP is good for China and bad for the US”: “RCEP would further promote intra-Asian economic integration, insulating the region more from the United States both economically and strategically.”
Given US disengagement, Chinese power will only continue to grow and not necessarily in benign ways. ASEAN countries are thus caught in a crossroads. The Thai government, for example, prides itself on its traditional ability to balance off great powers against each other. Recent Thai diplomacy has been clumsy, however, and risks failing to replicate its previous historical success, as both domestic and international factors has pushed Thailand further away from the US and closer to China. China has been successful in driving a wedge between its alliance with the US.
Of course, it is easy for ASEAN leaders to try to ignore this dynamic, hiding behind slogans such as “ASEAN centrality” and the need to cultivate “a thousand friends and no enemies”. But eventually, greater Chinese pressure may end up crushing the ants. The nutshell will crack.
The late ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan argued that ASEAN must provide “a centrality of substance, not just a centrality of good-will.” Unless Thailand and its neighbors can creatively and dynamically confront the new challenges of a world where the US president is obsessed with ‘America First’ while Chinese influence continues to grow, their bad dreams will become reality.