Peter Drysdale, co-editor of East Asia Forum reflects on New Mandala‘s first decade.
The countries of Southeast Asia are collectively a central anchor in Asia’s geo-strategic order. Against the long odds that many realists have continued to call, the ASEAN group they founded 50 years ago has not only survived but has also become a useful fulcrum in managing relations among the major regional powers.
ASEAN is a central feature of Asian regional architecture. It is a bulwark of regional stability and increasing prosperity and a pivotal element in the geopolitics of the whole Asian region. Individually all 10 member states have their fragilities — prominently now Thailand, given the uncertainties about its democratic future. Collectively they are a force that at critical points shapes regional outcomes and has standing in global affairs.
ASEAN, in the face of China’s rise and its competitive rivalry with the United States, now seems more important than ever.
Driven to unity and cooperation in its relations with large neighbouring countries, ASEAN has been larger than the sum of its parts. ASEAN’s approach to international diplomacy carries weight despite the contradictions in coordination and coherence across a vastly diverse group of nations.
Contradictions and counter currents to cooperation there are aplenty. Thailand, Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy and has been one of its economic success stories over the past decade. To have Thailand falter at a time of ambitious integration is not good for the regional economy or ASEAN centrality in Asian affairs.
Thailand, for example, is host to almost two million migrant workers from Myanmar. Myanmar is Southeast Asia’s new frontier. The problems in Bangkok undermine both the Myanmar opportunity for Thailand and make Thailand a more difficult neighbour for Myanmar as that country seeks to throw off its militarily encumbered past.
Transitions of political power in the polities of Southeast Asia are all in varying degrees subject to the Thai risk.
Want to understand what‘s happening in Southeast Asia and how it affects the important Southeast Asian enterprise — where the fragilities are beneath the ASEAN consensus, what eddies and currents in the societies and polities in mainland Southeast Asia might threaten to become raging torrents and might engulf the neighbouring lands?
The go-to site, of course, is New Mandala.
What a triumph in the mobilisation of critical interest around the intellectual power that its founders, Nicholas Farrelly and Andrew Walker, and their colleagues at the ANU committed to project!
It was an experiment, they say, in the use on the new technologies to encourage timely and active sharing of knowledge and ideas about the countries in which they represent such deep specialisation. The experiment continues — an exercise in the loosely controlled anarchy of fierce debate and rigorous intellectual review that helps to sort out the grain from the chaff.
It’s a model quite different from that of its distinctly-not Siamese twin sister at East Asia Forum, with its editorial discipline and cookie-cutter op-ed analysis — models that are entirely complementary. It’s also no accident of course that both, born of the same womb in friendly interactive conception, had their genesis in this centre of deep learning.
Maintain the energy and the roll towards the next anniversary celebration, New Mandala!
Peter Drysdale is Emeritus Professor and Co-Editor of East Asian Forum and Head of the East Asian Bureau of Economic Research in the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University.