Can the Mahathir principle help the Asean in the ongoing trade war?

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This is the question asked by Khmer Times, a Cambodian daily English newspaper, in an op-ed today.

The question is about the need for the region to find a solution that would limit the effect of the growing trade war, which has taken global significance.

Saying that Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has started a move to recalibrate the regional geopolitical instability, the paper suggests that his EACE could be one of the means the Asean might need to look at.

But what are the options Asean member states have besides the Asean+ forums in the current trade war?

There is, of course, the Apec forum, but it is not delivering the way it should according to its vast potential.

Its member states will have to decide whether the Trans-Pacific Partnership 11 or the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC) are the way to go in the wake of a potential spillover of the trade war.

Experts are now debating whether Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s move to balance the country’s foreign policy by bringing both Japan and China to its side is the answer to the growing regional instability.

There are 16 countries in the RCEP. The group includes Japan, China, South Korea and the ten Asean countries, and is similar in nature to the recently revived idea of an East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC) proposed by Mr Mahathir.

The question is: What is the difference between the RCEP and the EAEC? Also, why do we need so many economic forums in this region?

According to some experts, the RCEP may not be what Asean is looking for with a trade war on the horizon. Despite Japan cosying up to the idea, the RCEP is seen as a China-led push for a trade pact in which Beijing will have a dominant role.

Experts say the EAEC might be the right solution instead. The EAEC looks more likely to be a trade pact where Asean will have an edge over the Chinese, though it is still too early to pronounce on the new multinational pact.

Explosive trade war

Nevertheless, there is also the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP or TPP 11). This broad base economic and investment pact could be the answer if the US were to rejoin it without conditions.

Otherwise, the US may be the dominant force and with Mr Trump’s bullying tactics, the trade pact may not serve the interests of Asean. It may challenge its centrality and unity, given the fact that only a few Asean members are in the pact.

In this early stage in the budding trade war, the Asean remains exposed to an explosive situation with an erratic Mr Trump on the loose.

Is it better for Asean to develop more regional trade alliances or to rely on the US against the rising Chinese giant? Many say the US cannot be trusted. Others argue the US is the only country that could salvage Asean against the Chinese. They say Asean could do without another ploy from Beijing given that it has now virtually conquered the South China Sea.

Read the full story on the Khmer Times website. The article is written by Kazi Mahmood, the KT’s associate business editor.