Source AsiaTimes

HONG KONG, China: A century ago, American humorist Robert Benchley quipped that there are “two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not.” Thomas Parks does not.

In a new book, “Southeast Asia’s Multipolar Future: Averting a New Cold War” (Bloomsbury), Parks challenges those who divide the Indo-Pacific into two poles – one Chinese, the other American – and who argue, therefore, that Southeast Asia must divide the bulk of its attention between them. Instead of two poles, he sees many.

Parks also implies frustration with Southeast Asian countries themselves, which, by continually imploring China and the US not to pressure them into choosing one over the other, unwittingly contribute to the bipolar conception. If there are more than two poles, then there are more than two choices.

While conceding that China and the US are the heavyweights, Parks contends that they are trending toward “strategic parity”, such that neither is likely to establish hegemony in the region.

Far from resulting in gridlock or geopolitical inertia, however, he argues the opposite: an “opening for the second tier of actors in the region to have outsized influence” – for middle and regional powers to act as additional poles.

Moreover, among the key causes of great power parity in the region is Southeast Asia itself, whose collective voice speaks for even its smallest members and is increasingly heard in Beijing, Washington and elsewhere.

This is done via the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Home to the world’s fifth-largest economy and third-largest population, the region has proven a pole in its own right by keeping China and the US on either side of an open door.

These auxiliary poles – principally Australia, the EU, France, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the UK – vary greatly in size, strength and geopolitical magnetism vis-à-vis ASEAN and its member states. But the point is their sheer number and the options they represent for, and present to, the region. And they are here to stay.    

The framework thus laid, Parks immediately sets about the foundation of his argument with a chapter on Southeast Asia’s “Unseen Agency”, whose title acknowledges the idea’s many skeptics.  

Expertly linking relevant concepts such as balancing, band-wagoning, and hedging to recent examples, Parks details the ways in which regional states are playing “defense” against the sometimes heavy-handed tactics of China and the US.

He also does this by referencing history, showing that the Cold War’s near-total alignment of regional states with one side or the other was actually a short-lived departure from centuries of negotiating great power pressure. Southeast Asia was making use of these concepts before they were concepts.

Among the book’s major insights is its illustration of the region’s recent “offensive” moves, the most effective of which is the focus of a chapter on “Diversifying Partners.”

Both individually and as a regional pole/bloc, Southeast Asian countries are doubling down on the “multipolarity” they have helped create by reapportioning their foreign policies to include more middle and regional powers.

And as with any portfolio whose diversification exceeds new resources, this has mitigated risk against a day of reckoning between China and the US while enabling new opportunities for expanding relations elsewhere.

Fortunately for his assertions, which run contrary to prevailing talk of a “new Cold War”, Parks is an empiricist.  Focusing on four areas – trade and FDI, foreign aid, travel and study abroad, and military cooperation and procurement – he contrasts Southeast Asia’s relations with the dominant and non-dominant states during the Cold War with the same since the war’s conclusion.

While narrow vestiges remain (Laos’s economic dependence on China, heavy Philippine weapons procurement from the US), the level of reliance on a dominant power in any of the four areas by Southeast Asian countries has diminished significantly over the past three decades. “This reliance,” he rightly notes, “made them vulnerable to foreign influence and leverage.”

At the same time, and even more to his point, Parks reveals that reliance overall has not diminished but instead has been diluted in favor of middle and regional powers. Fundamental changes – the Mekong’s “battlefields to marketplaces”, China’s economic rise, America’s “forever wars” – have of course played more than passive backdrop to this, but Southeast Asia has clearly been making deals and decisions on its own.

After being the top study-abroad destination for decades, for example, the US is no longer number one for any Southeast Asian country, while (at least before the pandemic) China led the list for only Thai and Indonesian students. Australia and the UK, meanwhile, have surged in popularity with the region’s outward-bound students.

Even as China and Russia have essentially swapped their levels of global power since the end of the Cold War, Russia’s arms sales to the region exceeded China’s four-fold between 1999-2018.

Interestingly, among the main factors enabling countries to diversify have been the “multiple competing factions and voices” within them that push for greater or lesser alignment with China or the US.

These range from camps within the communist party structures of Laos and Vietnam, to powerful ethnic Chinese minorities in Malaysia and Thailand, to partially democratic constituencies in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Parks’s prose, reflective of his long experience writing for diplomats and policymakers, is a study in measure and modulation, but he is subtly provocative in his chapters on ASEAN and “The Normative Divide.”

The former adopts a decidedly minority view among Western commentators in defending the regional body as (per its subtitle) “indispensable and misunderstood.” “Fundamentally,” Parks asserts, “whether you agree with it or not, ASEAN functions the way it was intended to function.”

That way is as “the primary vehicle for countries in Southeast Asia to shape external power engagement in the region.”  Founded at the height of the Cold War in 1967, ASEAN was designed to manage disputes and conflicts among its five original members so that external powers could not in the future interfere as they were doing then.

Accordingly, once those powers and their proxy armies retreated in the 1990s, ASEAN absorbed its final four members and “it is remarkable that not a single armed conflict has occurred between ASEAN members since they joined the group,” Parks writes.

More than that, ASEAN has succeeded in establishing its own vaunted “centrality” to regional security by ensuring that its ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) – also founded in the 1990s – contains the largest (27 states) and most inclusive (North Korea) membership of any such group.

It is true that this centrality is purely procedural and that ASEAN, despite its collective heft, seldom advances its own agenda.  But Parks’s point is that the power to convene is the power ASEAN itself has chosen to claim and exercise.

What ASEAN was not mandated to do – the main misunderstanding among Western observers – is to manage disputes and conflicts within its member states. Its actions to preempt external involvement only apply when conflicts involve at least two ASEAN members.

The rub lay in instances (several of which have been offered by Myanmar in recent years) where the distinction is hardly clear, and thus where ASEAN has struggled to reach and maintain its all-important consensus.

Parks acknowledges that “ASEAN’s response to the Myanmar crisis seems to be leading the organization into uncharted territory” and that changes to its mandate are almost inevitable. In the meantime, his unique chapter does a service to readers and the regional body alike.

Parks continues his stride into “The Normative Divide”, concerning the promotion of democracy and human rights in Southeast Asia by external powers, but finds himself on less steady footing.

He is correct to call for the right “balance” between promoting these “values” against more traditional national interests, and to claim that US and EU sometimes error “by emphasizing values at the expense of all other areas of cooperation.”

He also accurately notes that Southeast Asia’s governments have substantially regressed in democratic governance and respect for human rights since the end of the Cold War and have, as a result, “developed a strong preference for external partners who avoid, or delicately handle, these confrontational issues.”

But his disquieting conclusion is essentially that – ergo – the right “balance” is to simply minimize values promotion toward maximizing receptiveness to regional governments.

This implies that rights and governance inherently “weigh less” on the scale, in both their abstract importance and application, than do more traditional interests. It is hardly conceivable that Parks would sacrifice, say, global trade rules or diplomatic security the same way.

Further, in asking whether admittedly legitimate criticism of regional governments “is worth the cost in bilateral relations over the long term”, he implies that values are ancillary or additional, rather than integral, to such relations.

And while he cites Australia, India, Japan and South Korea as striking the balance varyingly well in Southeast Asia, his less-is-more logic is a slippery slope to China—which, “by not allowing values to dominate bilateral relations”, has advanced its influence and interests among regional governments more than any other country has in a quarter-century.

Promoting values less, as opposed to better, will not help Southeast Asia “avert a new cold war”; it will only usher it to the wrong side.

The book concludes with detailed chapters on four of the region’s new or, in the case of Japan, newly recognized poles.  As with all of its chapters, these begin with vignettes dating back a few years to a few centuries that not only illustrate a key point but provide welcome context and color. Their content follows suit.

Japan’s development assistance to Southeast Asia was nearly twice that of the US in 1973 and nearly nine times greater by 2003, a disparity that has barely lessened since. Who knew that 13 of the 17 bridges over Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River were built by the Japanese?

In 2021, Australia – not China, the US, or Japan – became ASEAN’s first Comprehensive Strategic Partner, and the maritime border it shares with the region’s largest member, Indonesia, is the longest maritime border in the world.

As India was making Southeast Asia the main focus of its 1990s “Look East” policy, the region was busy looking north.  By 2019, China and ASEAN were a decade into free trade and investment agreements, while India accounted for less than 4% of ASEAN exports and less than 1% of its FDI.

And from 2011 to 2021, the six formal partnerships established between European governments and ASEAN were more than the rest of the world combined. The UK became its first new dialogue partner in more than a quarter century.

So much of what has been written on geopolitics in Southeast Asia over the past half-dozen years is essentially the same, having become the “accepted discourse” to the exclusion of alternative views from different vantage points. There is China and the US, and there is everyone else.

Parks’s view of the region is one from the region, where he has lived and worked for 16 years. It poses a credible and necessary challenge to this new “Washington Consensus”, introducing a far more crowded and complex environment.  

For this reason alone – among many others – his book should feature not only in the briefing packets of those deployed to the region, but on the desks of their many minders back home.