Monday, April 12, 2010


"...When you’re asking questions, please be rude and provocative - that will help me learn better!"

This was the first time I head such a plea at a seminar. The speaker was Prof. Kishore Mahbubani from LKYSPP, Singapore, after his session at ADBI-Tokyo on 12 April 2010. The topic -  "The Secret Formula of Asian Regional Cooperation".

Having recently completed a course on "Regional Integration" at Tsukuba-U, the topic was not only interesting but a good opportunity to directly interact with Prof. Mahbubani. I had liked his papers and articles for their gung-ho optimism about Asia and thought it might be worthwhile to travel to Tokyo on a cold, gloomy, rainy day.

I was not at all disappointed.   :-)

Introducing the trends in regional cooperation as a "sunrise industry", Prof. Mahbubani started out by comparing two models - EU and ASEAN. The EU's three greatest strengths, according to him, were that -
  • It has succeeded not only in creating a zero-war zone but also enabled a zero-prospect of war in Europe
  • Created the most open borders for regional groupings - something that would have been impossible without total trust;
  • Replaced 19th century notions of sovereignty with 21st century notions of inter-dependence.

Even though these steps have made EU the 'gold-standard' of regional integration, it had some fundamental defects that are often overlooked by countries eager to replicate it. The EU model is deeply flawed because it is -

  • A mono-civilizational entity: EU is open only to Christian Europeans. It exclusion of Turkey underlines the fact that the grouping is out of sync with the real world which happens to be a multi-civilizational entity of 6.8 billion people;
  • Political dishonesty is rampant: Disconnect between rhetoric and reality is obvious from the recent fracas over foreign policy, and from the proxy-wars European powers have been fighting in the Balkans and in Africa;
  • Economic Dishonesty also rampant: Everybody knew that the Greeks were being dishonest with their data, but nobody wanted to do anything.
ASEAN, on the other hand, is a much more pragmatic, inclusive organization. Where EU is legalistic, formalized and technical, ASEAN places practice ahead of theory: trade links are first nutured and then the agreements and paperwork follow. It is clearly multi-civilizational (Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Taoists..), reflects the messiness inherent in the regional political fabric.

In the EU model the big boys (France, Germany) decide first and the others follow; in ASEAN, the little guys got together while the big boys (Japan, China) dithered. EU is obsessed with internal challenges (“just like arranging deck chairs on a sinking Titanic”; ERASMUS between similar countries), while ASEAN moves forward on an external focus, using agreements that need not be based on consensus, and using alliances are based on common interests (ASEAN+3, +6, +8).

According to Prof. Mahbubani, three decades on regular ASEAN meetings – and golf camaraderie – have succeeded in building trust in a turbulent region. Other regions like Africa and Latin America may perhaps find ASEAN model more useful than trying to blindly copy the EU model, which is fundamentally flawed in any case.

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