Brexit: Asia’s Alarm Bell
For more than three years now, Britain has been bracing itself for its departure from the European Union. The latest in a series of leave dates is now October 31st.
On its Asian impact, the debate automatically heads towards trade and what deals can be struck between a Britain free from EU restrictions, and the rising economies of the Indo-Pacific. Even now, much of that remains unknown.
But Brexit also offers Asia an opportunity to learn from Europe’s experiment whereby, in order to prevent war, it built the world’s largest trading bloc with shared laws and values among 28 member states, home to more than 500 million citizens.
Over the decades, the EU’s drive for regional cohesion and control has constantly rubbed up against Britain’s preference for sovereign flexibility.
Whatever the benefits or not of Britain’s leaving, it has weakened the EU’s global standing and added to the risk of its own fragmentation. Britain is not the only restless member.
Asia has an array of institutions, most notably the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). It also has members within the 53-state Commonwealth, made up mainly of Britain and its former colonies.
None of these has yet attempted what Europe has. But, as Asia debates how to deal with China’s expansion, it must ask the question as to how far it should try to go in creating groupings that could begin to resemble the EU, NATO and their many associated organisations that act as balancers to an antagonistic Russia, and before that the Soviet Union and other external threats.
There is no easy answer. ASEAN, at its operational level with trade and consensus politics, is effective, SAARC less so, mainly because of the overwhelming size of India and its insoluble hostility with Pakistan.
The Commonwealth’s membership comprises nations that, for the most part, have put historical colonial grievances behind them, and signed up to principles of democracy and human rights. Even though member states routinely violate them, that itself is no small feat
But none of these sample organisations is designed to take the type of tough decisions made regularly by those forged by the West.
There are no hard and fast rules as to what works in moulding a group of countries into an operational unit with a common goal, except that any organisation, by testing its boundaries and moving out of its comfort zone, can expect to face more risks. This is what has happened to the European Union.
But if Asia is ever to find its own voice that is not predominantly a Chinese one, it will at some stage need to tread the path taken by Western democracies after the Second World War.
It was not easy then and will be more difficult because Asia is more diverse than Europe in languages, wealth disparity, religions, culture and systems of government.
The EU began as a trading agreement in 1951 between six nations with the specific aim of stopping Germany and France fighting again. This became the European Project which has undergone constant transformation and, technically, gives small nations an equal footing with the bigger ones.
There is constant friction about how far the EU should intrude on national sovereignty and how much it needs to take regional control in order to be effective.
Numerous comparisons of the Franco-German problem can be drawn with Asia; India and Pakistan; China and Japan; Japan and South Korea, and so on. All of these are preventing an Asian cohesion while tensions remain precisely because there is no regional vision to supersede them.
A pan-Asian organisation with agreed rules and real teeth would take years to create. But it is preferable to running the risk of once again choosing between superpowers with opposing values. Asia has been down that road before, and it is time to move on.
The EU provides a rough template. Brexit warns of the parameters of taking regional power too far. There is enough there for Asia to study and make a start.