Prof Dr Mohd Faiz Abdullah was interviewed by China News Weekly magazine

by Zheng Liying, 14 July 2023

“In what has been dubbed the ‘post-Cold War’ period, countries need more consensus and cooperation than ever before. But when all sorts of geopolitical risks arise, it looks like a Sisyphean task.” Faiz Abdullah, chairman of the Malaysian Institute of Strategic and International Studies, said so at the recent session of the World Peace Forum on “ASEAN Centrality and Regional Order”.

Over the past half century, ASEAN has grown from five founding members to a regional cooperation organization including all countries in Southeast Asia. The theme of this year’s 42nd ASEAN Summit is “ASEAN Essentials: The Center of Growth”. The rotating presidency of Indonesia expressed the hope that ASEAN will continue to be the center of regional economic development and maintain rapid, inclusive and sustainable economic growth.

In Faiz Abdullah’s view, the rapid economic growth of ASEAN has indeed made ASEAN an engine of regional economic growth. However, with the evolution of ASEAN’s centrality, ASEAN is also facing internal security challenges and the need to compete among major powers. find a new balance.

During the World Peace Forum, Faiz Abdullah accepted an exclusive interview with China News Weekly. Faiz Abdullah is currently the chairman of the Malaysian Institute of Strategic and International Studies. He has served as a special advisor to the Selangor State Government on international policy and affairs, and a strategic and international relations advisor to the Malaysian Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. He emphasized that even though the task of strengthening consensus among various countries seems impossible, all parties must still work hard for it and use diplomatic means to solve current problems and challenges.

ASEAN should strengthen integration

China News Weekly: This year marks the 56th anniversary of the establishment of ASEAN. In 2022, the total GDP (gross domestic product) of the six ASEAN countries will increase by 5.7% year-on-year, the highest growth rate since 2013, which is significantly higher than the average growth rate of developed regions in Europe, America and the world. What are the new measures taken by ASEAN to achieve such achievements?

Faiz Abdullah: ASEAN countries are now deeply involved in two economic frameworks: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which will Regional economic growth has played a positive role in promoting and creating more opportunities for Southeast Asian countries.

For us, the best way to seize the opportunity is to continue to cooperate. All ASEAN members should trade by the rules while continuing to deepen our multilateral trading system. Taking RCEP as an example, ASEAN countries are partners in trade and economic development. But sometimes, there is competition within ASEAN, but I think rules-based competition will be friendly. Once all countries adhere to the same rules, a win-win result will be achieved.

In addition, ASEAN countries should also strengthen integration, which mainly has three levels: the first is social and cultural integration, people in ASEAN countries can freely communicate and travel freely; the second is political security integration, such as the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting ( ADMM) and the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+), etc., aim to promote mutual trust among member states and establish a complete security framework; the third is economic integration, including the unification of currency and trade balance among ASEAN countries. At the same time, we can also see that the trade volume between ASEAN countries and China has grown very fast.

China News Weekly: At the ASEAN summit in the first half of this year, Southeast Asian countries discussed many important issues, such as regional security and economic integration. What role do you think the ASEAN Summit has played in promoting political stability and security in Southeast Asia?

Faiz Abdullah: This is a difficult question to answer because it is also the most difficult of the three levels of ASEAN integration. Frankly, ASEAN has not been particularly successful in calming tensions within its member states, especially when it comes to Myanmar. At the ASEAN leaders’ meeting not long ago, Southeast Asian countries also discussed the situation in Myanmar, but Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and other countries believe that it is not the time to deal with the military government.

As far as the security issue itself is concerned, the ASEAN security framework is indeed constantly being strengthened. Mechanisms such as ADMM and ADMM+ have made great contributions to deepening defense cooperation and maintaining regional peace. But in general, the Myanmar issue is a test and challenge for ASEAN. However, I don’t think this will divide ASEAN because we have been giving full respect to our members and looking for the best solutions instead of creating more problems.

India is another riser

China News Weekly: In your speech at the World Peace Forum, you talked about ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific outlook and the rise of India. What are the obstacles to the cooperation between ASEAN and India?

Faiz Abdullah: Just like China is rising, India is another rising player and will become a huge economic entity, sooner or later we have to admit this fact. At the same time, we also need to understand the positioning of India in the Pacific region. Last year, the United States announced the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). If IPEF implements the original intention of economic prosperity, it is of course good. But in other ways, it has also faced some criticism.

In India, some people support opening up the market and joining the multilateral economic and trade system, which is advocated by ASEAN. But there are also some people who are not very active, so India is actually not ready to join multilateral economic and trade agreements and frameworks.

Two years ago, ASEAN formulated the ASEAN “Indo-Pacific Outlook”, a sign of ASEAN’s attempt to regain centrality in the expanding geopolitical landscape. For us, we hope that India can show greater vitality, more understanding, more cooperation, more understanding of ASEAN’s needs, and at the same time let us understand more about India’s needs.

China News Weekly: As a founding country of ASEAN, Malaysia plays an important role in ASEAN. How to evaluate Malaysia’s role and contribution in ASEAN? What unique Malaysian experiences and insights can be shared?

Faiz Abdullah: Malaysia insists on leading by example and calls on every member of ASEAN to practice peace, freedom and neutrality. At the same time, encourage more investment and promote the development of import and export trade.

In addition, Malaysia has good interaction with various ASEAN member states and believes in the principle of prosperity of neighbors. In this sense, Malaysia has also made great contributions to the unity of ASEAN as a whole.

If you study the history of ASEAN, you can also find that as early as the 1970s, Razak, the second Prime Minister of Malaysia, first proposed to establish Southeast Asia as a “zone of peace, freedom and neutrality”, and this concept has continued to this day. I believe Malaysia’s contribution is an integral part of multilateral mechanisms and global supply chains.

Finding a new balance in Sino-US competition

China News Weekly: How do you think ASEAN maintains a balance in the relationship between major powers, especially the “China-US competition”?

Faiz Abdullah: Rivalry between states is largely the norm in international relations, and can even be said to be a major feature of modern diplomacy. But when two giants confront each other, the ground under their feet will inevitably suffer.

In my opinion, ASEAN as a whole is a very good cooperative partner, and has trade relations with China, the United States, and the European Union. Of course, in terms of numbers, ASEAN and China are each other’s largest trading partners.

The current Sino-US rivalry and tensions are often compared to the Cold War, and some even call it the “New Cold War.” But we can also see that, despite the friction, the two great powers remain closely connected commercially and financially. This is not a zero-sum game. As Southeast Asian countries, we hope to see stronger cooperation between the world’s top two economies.

China News Weekly: How does ASEAN play a “neutral” role?

Faiz Abdullah: I think economic diplomacy is very important, and it is the best way for ASEAN to find a balance in the competition between China and the United States. At the end of the day, all countries need trade, growth, shared prosperity, etc. Since ancient times, why have wars occurred between countries? Basically, it is caused by economic problems.

Many people describe the Sino-US competition as a “Thucydides Trap”, and people often ask us a question: Do we need to choose a side? In my opinion, ASEAN does not belong entirely to any one side. As a trading partner and dialogue partner of both sides, ASEAN tries to convey important concepts such as collaboration, cooperation, tolerance, participation, and dialogue. ASEAN should face up to the reality of competition and the unique historical context of the region, and understand that the tensions created by this competition will persist until a new balance is found. It is therefore in ASEAN’s best interest to learn how best to manage it.

Published in the 1100th issue of “China News Weekly” magazine on July 17, 2023

Magazine title: Faiz Abdullah: How ASEAN is responding to ‘post-Cold War’ challenges

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