White Man's Burden 2009: "Enlightening" SE Asia

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 11/09/2009 04:43:00 PM
There is an inbuilt streak which dies hard in many Anglo-Saxons to enlighten us backward coloured people who haven't seen the obvious advantages of capitalist liberal democracy. Nevermind, of course, rather contradictory episodes of subrime frivolity and Guantanamo Ghraibing misadventures as not-so-shining examples of both. While the date on the calendar says 9 November 2009, it might as well be 1899 as far as the FT's Asia correspondent Kevin Brown is concerned--the year in which Rudyard Kipling wrote of "The White Man's Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands" in the pages of McClure's. Then, as now, the Great White Master is "burdened" with bringing civilization to Southeast Asia.

The context Brown writes about is diplomatic wrangling over the future of Asia. He believes that the US should flex its muscles in the region just as China is, in its own way, gradually vying for political-economic primacy there. In what he describes as "stultifying" diplomatic summits, the PRC is pushing for regional economic cooperation that disincludes the Yanks. Such efforts include ASEAN+3 which has the ASEAN 10 and China, Japan, and South Korea:
Asia’s annual series of regional summits is rarely calculated to stir the blood. This year, though, the stultifying communiqu├ęs conceal a battle for influence between China and the US that could hinder progress on human rights and democracy across much of the region.

The issue is the extent to which the US and its Asian friends can participate directly in multilateral regional institutions. Although there are a lot of these, only two really matter. One is the 10-country Association of South East Asian Nations, which holds annual summits with China, Japan and South Korea, known as Asean + 3, and with those countries plus India, Australia and New Zealand – known as the East Asia Summit. The other is the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation grouping, a looser caucus with 20 countries (plus Hong Kong).

These summits have a meagre record. Asean has delivered some trade liberalisation successes. Apec has produced a useful travel card that helps business people avoid queues at airports. But much of their summitry verges on farce. Burma’s military junta, communist Vietnam and Laos, and Brunei, an absolute monarchy, happily signed the democracy and fundamental freedoms clauses of Asean’s human rights charter, knowing they could not be enforced.

Greater US engagement could force Asia’s democratic laggards to confront such issues. But Washington is in danger of being excluded by Chinese manoeuvring from plans to deepen and widen regional integration.
I doubt whether it has occurred to Brown and other modern Kiplings that us coloured people might actually have reasons to favour China over the US. During the Asian financial crisis, the Japanese offered to help Southeast Asian countries with an Asian Monetary Fund instead of having to deal with the IMF at the height of its "Washington Consensus" orthodoxy. (More here on this angle.) This proposal was promptly shot down by the US, but still. China also played a good neighbor by not competitively devaluing the yuan while many in the region struggled.

Instead of trumpeting a rehashed version of The End of History like Brown does, I think it would be better for the Anglo-Saxons to enumerate what they can offer the region instead of self-serving platitudes about the obvious benefits of capitalist liberal democracy. Certainly, American hypocrisy over dollar debasement does it no favours when eight of the world's top ten reserve holders are in Asia. In the end, there is little mystery about who the Yanks are screwing over via "strong dollar" misstatements. In all honesty, they have likely very little to offer compared to China and Japan.

On 15 November, the first ASEAN-US summit will be held in Singapore with Obama in tow. The interesting difference here is that Myanmar will be on hand. It is doubtful if the Yanks will dare bring up human rights given their Guantanamo Ghraibed recent history in that department. Rather, it's more likely that the US-ASEAN FTA will be discussed at greater length precisely to maintain political-economic relevance in the region. Just as Bill Clinton toned down his complaints over Chinese human rights, so too is Barack Obama likely to do so over Myanmar. While America's influence in the region is certainly not what it was before, it still wants to maintain a foothold. From Thailand's The Nation comes this insightful op-ed from Kavi Chongkittavorn
Whatever the US and Asean leaders choose to call their inaugural meeting would reveal deep down how they feel towards each other and their future relations. The previous plan would be a one-off summit to mark the three-decade cooperation. It is an open secret that the Asean leaders would like to have a regular and stand-alone summit on a yearly basis with the US leader...

After Asean's repeated diplomatic overtures to the US State Department and National Security Council, the grouping has lowered its expectation of an annual summit at its year-end meeting akin to the Asean+3 (China, Japan and Korea) to a mere commitment for follow-up meetings in the future. Now the ball is in the US court whether Washington wants to project enthusiasm and enhance its relationship at the highest level. But in the end it would be Obama who would make the difference...

The message came right after Senator Richard Lugar proposed the negotiation of an Asean-US free trade agreement (FTA) as part of a comprehensive strategy towards Asean. He reiterated that China, India, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea have already finalised FTAs with Asean and are sharpening their competitive edge over the US in Southeast Asia.

Obviously, at the top on the summit's agenda will be a discussion on the feasibility of an Asean-US FTA and other initiatives that would enhance economic cooperation. Singapore, which was the previous country coordinator of Asean-US relations, is keen to push for a joint study so that details of modalities can be worked out.
Perhaps some humility would do the Yanks some good in a world where there are others offering a better deal than simply accumulating junk Treasuries without limit. It would be interesting if Kipling could be time-warped to the present when the coloureds are, with some much-needed cooperation, better poised to show their erstwhile "masters" the errors of their ways.