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Re-emergence of the Old Order in Asia

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BOTH Asia and Europe are changing in many significant ways. Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and the EU (European Union), the regional institutional manifestations of the Southeast Asian and European region respectively, are dealing with divergent interests and at times conflicting approaches of their member states.

More importantly, their own interests are overshadowed by the ongoing US-China trade war looming large over these two otherwise vibrant but strategically vulnerable regions.

Despite several commonalities, convergent interests and concerns, “Europe and Asia do not know each other well enough, and the ignorance is more on the part of Europe”.

Several such issues were echoed in Datuk Raja Nushirwan’s keynote speech at the Asia-Europe Institute which he delivered at the institute’s flagship annual conference titled “Europe in the new Asia — new anxieties, new constructs”.

Among key points highlighted by Raja Nushirwan was the assertion that Asia and Europe share many fundamental interests, including the maintenance of the international rules-based order.

In a speech which provided rare insights into Malaysian foreign policy thinking, including on the crucial relationship with China, the Malaysian ambassador (designate) to China said that as an open economy, Malaysia’s best interests are served by a stable Southeast Asia.

Highlighting the Southeast Asian diplomatic tradition, he reiterated that the region welcomes all major international players; so long as their approaches and actions are based on a set of transparent rules and norms agreeable to the Southeast Asian region.

In that context, the region welcomes Europe’s attempts to strengthen relations with Asean, he noted. He stated that “to foster closer relations, both East Asia and Europe need to understand each one another better, in light of the profound change taking place in the other”.

Underscoring the foreign policy priorities for Malaysia, Raja Nushirwan said that it is important that all major international and regional powers and stakeholders are engaged with the region.

For Asia, the rise of China, evolving relations with Russia and India, and politico-economic dynamics within Southeast Asia are consequential factors.

Raja Nushirwan argued that “this is not a ‘New Asia’ — this is the re-emergence of the old order in Asia predating colonialism.

“It is the order characterised by the interdependence of Southeast Asia, China, and India.

“The change is that there are new actors: US, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. So it is the latter which must adjust to the age-old regional realities.”

He added that the rise or the re-emergence of China is not a problem, and it is natural for great powers to serve their own national interests. Therefore, it is logical for China as well as the US to pursue their own interests.

Highlighting the diplomatic salience of the Southeast Asian nations in the regional order, he said that “contrary to what many outside the region think, Southeast Asian nations do have the power of agency.

“We are not just passive recipients of the regional order. It is a false dichotomy to think that Southeast Asian nations, particularly Malaysia, would see their relations with China, US, India or Russia from the great powers’ perspectives rather than from their own.

“Malaysia looks at its ties with major powers from its own perspective rather than being driven by major powers’ standpoints.

“Accept these realities and your ‘new anxieties’ will go away.”

He cited the Asean outlook on the Indo-Pacific, recently adopted by Asean member countries, as a pertinent example, and said that among other things, the document reinforces the centrality of Asean.

He added that the Indo-Pacific is not a new regional architecture but is an attempt to re-strengthen the existing regional architecture based on accepted norms and rules underpinned by principles of openness and non-intervention.

While sticking to the old guiding principles, the Indo-Pacific strives to enhance community- building efforts to strengthen existing mechanisms to face future challenges in a more effective manner. He affirmed that the Indo-Pacific is fulfilling these objectives.

Raja Nushirwan stated that concerns would arise if you subscribe too closely to western-oriented theory, with emphasis on the nation states as rational actors; security dilemma, anarchy, power and others.

Unlike international relations theory, diplomacy gives due consideration to human passions and humours because these factors shape the relations among nations.

Malaysia’s perception of China’s rise is driven by those human aspirations — respect, acknowledgement of their role in the world and contribution to bilateral and global relations.

The writer is from Asia Europe Institute, Universiti Malaya. This article was first published in New Straits Times on 25 August 2019.

Last Updated: 04/09/2019