Southeast Asia is making global headlines this week with the second US-North Korea Summit, in Hanoi.
“Asean as an organisation has nothing to do with the choice of Vietnam as the summit venue, but it does put [this] region in a favourable international light as a relatively neutral, safe and yet strategically important area of the world,” said Amitav Acharya, author of “The End of American World Order”.
“This shows that weaker and smaller nations and regions such as Asean will play an increasing role in creating a ‘multiplex’ world, different from a multipolar world in which only great powers play the defining role,” the US-based academic added.
Vietnam’s unique standing as a one-party communist country with a booming market economy drew special attention from observers.
“I believe the choice of Vietnam is significant, given its history as a communist state and one that was in conflict with the US. [It] will provide a useful platform for the North Korean leadership and citizens on how another country in similar circumstances has evolved,” said Nicholas Fang, executive director of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA).
Aside from playing host to peace summits, Southeast Asia has a track record recahing back to the early 2000s of launching official dialogues with North Korea to defuse nuclear tensions.
Under Surin Pitsuwan’s leadership, Asean took the initiative to invite North Korea as a dialogue partner at the Asean Regional Forum, the only major summit of foreign ministers in which North Korea participates.
“The venue selections also speak for the high levels of trust enjoyed between North Korea and Southeast Asian countries, who all have longstanding relations with the ‘hermit kingdom’,” said Harris Zainul, a researcher at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) in Malaysia.
Consequences for SE Asia?
Researchers in the Asean think-tank network are closely observing the denuclearisation process and the possible geopolitical scenarios stemming from a declaration to end the Korean War.
“I think the problem rests with the international order on how conflicts are being managed and ended. If Chairman Kim manages to secure a guarantee from [Trump] without [reciprocating with] a promise towards international law regarding nuclear issues, we are undermining the rule-based order that Asean states are privileging on various issues, for example the South China Sea. Because the result of [the Hanoi summit] will actually impact jurisprudence at the regional level,” said Andrew Mantong of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Indonesia.
ISIS Malaysia’s Farlina Said added:
“If the declaration to end the Korean War does not consider the concerns of stakeholders other than South and North Korea, there’s a possibility that the outcome will destabilise the geopolitical order. Against China-US rivalry, outcomes that can lead to instability will in one way or another impact Asean and its member states where they are forced to choose sides.”
On the economic impact to the region, Asean scholars mingle concern with optimism.
“There is also a possibility that a peaceful Korean peninsula will be inward-looking and may not be as active in international forums such as Asean, particularly in the North Korean economy’s formative years. However, should the teething-phase pass successfully, the Koreas will be a large prospective market for Asean economies,” explained Said.
Beyond the Asean Regional Forum
Experts on Asean’s various contributions towards peace processes emphasise the merits of the regional think-tank network, while the Asean Regional Forum has long been criticised as a “talking shop” hamstrung by the grouping’s non-interference policy.
“I foresee a ‘Track Two’ process between Asean and the two Koreas’ non-state actors to facilitate the ongoing peace dialogue. The first step in this initiative took place in Yangon on December 13 last year. These roundtable talks were facilitated by the think-tanks of Asean and the two Koreas,” said Hoo Chiew Ping, an expert on Northeast Asia at the National University of Malaysia.
“The dialogue was conducted in a very frank and open manner, as there were no representatives present from the major powers who often dominate the process and drown out the voices of smaller countries. South Korea can make use of these existing ties between Asean and North Korea,” explained Hoo.
These Asean scholars also had a question for stakeholders in the Korean peninsula conflict.
“Will they invite Asean to take part in the peace process or not? Do they realise Southeast Asian countries are a worthy diplomatic player or merely see them as a new market place or a destination for investment?” asked Mantong of CSIS Indonesia.
– Special to The Nation
Seulki Lee is a freelance correspondent based in Jakarta since 2011.
This article first appeared in The Nation by Seulki Lee on 1 March 2019, commentary by Farlina Said and Harris Zainul.