Thomas Daniel was quoted in South China Morning Post, 29 June 2024

  • Joining the China and Russia-led bloc could cause Asean to fracture, some say. Others argue it’s harmless hedging

By Maria Siow

The prospect of Southeast Asian nations joining Brics has ignited fierce debate among analysts, with proponents arguing membership could unlock lucrative trade and geopolitical opportunities – while sceptics warn it risks dragging countries into China and Russia’s orbit and further eroding regional unity.

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim set tongues wagging with the revelation earlier in June that his country was preparing to join Brics, with formal procedures to begin soon. Thailand has also reportedly submitted a formal request to join, following in the footsteps of Laos and Myanmar, which declared their interest last year.

The Brics group originally comprised Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, giving it the acronym. Its ranks expanded earlier this year when Saudi Arabia, Iran, Ethiopia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates also became members.

Malaysia’s push to join Brics has largely been driven by Anwar’s broader rhetoric around championing the Global South and challenging perceived Western double standards, according to regional foreign policy experts.

The Malaysian prime minister has been vocal on issues that align with the overall Brics ethos, ranging from the need for multipolarity to diversified economic development, said Thomas Daniel, a senior fellow specialising in foreign policy and security studies at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia.

“Malaysia looks at Brics not as an alternative but as another complementary multilateral mechanism”, Daniel said, noting that the country already has significant ties with major Brics members China and India. Deepening trade and investment links with other founding members like Brazil could also benefit its trade-dependent economy.

In a recent Facebook post, Anwar called for championing “the rise of the Global South” and fostering a world where “every nation has a seat at the table and a voice in shaping a collective future” – sentiments that dovetail with Bric’s positioning as an alternative to Western-led institutions.

Malaysia’s move also comes amid its growing frustration with the Western-led international community’s perceived double standards on issues like the Israeli-Gaza conflict. Since the escalation of the war, Malaysia has repeatedly expressed concerns about the loss of lives and questioned what it sees as unequal treatment.

Contrary to concerns that Brics membership could erode Asean unity and centrality, Daniel said he believes the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations has the flexibility and resilience to maintain its importance for member states.

Many Asean members also belong to other organisations such as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Indian Ocean Rim Association, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

Asean centrality will be further eroded
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Thai academic

“Membership of these organisations did not diminish the importance of Asean for its members and neither would Brics,” he said. “To imply otherwise is to reduce the agency, flexibility and resilience” of Asean.

Other multilateral institutions to which Asean members already belong include the Asian Development Bank, World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

“Membership of Brics will bring access to a new source of funding for the many developmental needs of the countries of the Southeast Asian region,” said Jayant Menon, a senior fellow at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, referring to the New Development Bank that was established in 2015 by Brics countries.

‘A strategic move’

Indonesia and Vietnam have also both said they’re looking into the benefits of Brics membership.

Ayu Anastasya Rachman, head of the international relations department at Universitas Bina Mandiri in Indonesia’s Gorontalo province, said joining such a consortium of major emerging economies could provide better access to lucrative markets, increased foreign investment, and opportunities for collaborative infrastructure projects.

“Joining Brics can also be seen as a strategic move to diversify economic partnerships and reduce dependence on Western-led financial institutions,” she said, adding that Brics membership could ultimately strengthen Southeast Asia’s voice and influence in global affairs, if managed effectively.

Indonesia’s potential Brics accession is under greater scrutiny, however, due to the country’s status as Southeast Asia’s largest economy and its leadership role within Asean, Ayu said, emphasising that Jakarta must carefully balance the advantages of Brics membership against concerns about overreliance on another economic bloc.

China, as the driving force behind Brics expansion, aims to make the grouping more representative of the developing world and amplify its collective voice on the global stage.

Many in Indonesia have advocated for the country to join the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development rather than Brics so as not “to be seen as aligning too closely to China”, according to Sharon Seah, coordinator of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s Asean Studies Centre.

With Indonesia poised to become the world’s fourth-largest economy, engaging more with developed OECD economies may bring more benefits, she said.

“It is not clear what the comparative advantage of the Indonesian economy is when compared to other large developing economies” such as those in Brics, she said.

Indonesia aims to join the OECD within three years, as reaffirmed by the country’s coordinating economic minister in May following a visit to Indonesia by the organisation’s secretary general, who met President Joko Widodo.

The OECD projects Indonesia’s gross domestic product will reach US$10.5 trillion by 2050, making it one of the largest economies alongside China, the US and India.

Asean member states opting to also join Brics could become a divisive issue for the regional bloc, according to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science and international relations at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University.

“Asean centrality will be further eroded”, he said, referring to the bloc’s core tenet of positioning itself as the primary platform in Southeast Asia for addressing regional challenges and engaging with external powers.

The professor also criticised Thailand’s potential Brics membership as “misguided” and a liability for the country’s international standing and credibility. Brics has evolved from a primarily geoeconomic platform for emerging economies to a geopolitical projection in the intensifying conflict between “the West” and “the Rest”, he said.

Seah argued that Brics membership offered Southeast Asian nations a way to “hedge” against the US-China rivalry. “Given that the multilateral order is crumbling all around us,” she said, “is it any wonder that countries are looking for new forms of cooperation?”

The Asean Economic Community Blueprint 2025, which aims to spur greater economic integration among member states, envisions building a highly cohesive, competitive, and innovative regional economy that is deeply connected.

But even enhanced cooperation between developing countries wouldn’t be enough to overcome global supply chain disruptions, Seah said, calling it unrealistic for the Global South to dominate entire supply chains.s.

“The nature of a globalised economy means that different component parts are produced in different parts of the world leveraging the different technologies and resources,” Seah told This Week in Asia.

She said Southeast Asian nations’ desire to join Brics should spur Asean to deepen its own regional integration, which has slowed due to changing geopolitics and rising protectionism.

Ultimately, the crumbing international order “should give Asean greater impetus to integrate more fully,” Seah said. “So that its members need not look outwards”.

This article first published in South China Morning Post, 29 June 2024

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