In an exclusive interview with Nathan Wilson for Technical Politics, Professor Michael Plummer, Director of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) discussed the economic development of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as topics such as the Biden Administration’s approach to the region, his thoughts on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and the ongoing Myanmar sanctions.

Prof. Plummer started his career as an economist after receiving a doctorate in economics from the University of Michigan. Subsequently, he worked as a Professor of Economics at Brandeis University, and was the Head of the Development Division for the OCED. Currently, he splits his time between three roles: Professor of International Economics at Johns Hopkins University; Eni Chair of International Economics at Johns Hopkins University SAIS; and, Director for John Hopkins SAIS Europe. His research focuses specifically on ASEAN and the Southeast Asia region, with a focus on economic development, international finance, and international trade theory and policy.

Alongside this, he has been an Asian Development Bank (ADB) distinguished lecturer, and worked as a team leader for various organisations, including ASEAN, the United Nations, OCED, ADB, WTO, and the World Bank. Furthermore, he has advised several governments on TPP negotiations and is a member of the editorial boards of the Asian Economic Journal and the Journal of Southeast Asian Economics, not to mention authoring or coauthoring over a hundred articles and book chapters.

In light of his highly-regarded scholarly output, Prof. Plummer has established himself one of the foremost thinkers today on the economics of Southeast Asia.

Charm Offensive Time?

From an economic perspective, how should the Biden Administration approach ASEAN post-coronavirus?

I think that the first thing that he should do is have a charm offensive with Southeast Asia and get more involved than the last administration was. The very first step for this is to appoint a US ambassador to ASEAN, there has not been a US Ambassador to ASEAN since 2017 and this is a major problem. Alongside this, Biden needs to attend the ASEAN-US summits, which President Trump only attended in 2017 in celebration of forty-year anniversary of US-ASEAN relations, but he did not attend any other meetings and so playing close attention to ASEAN is very useful. It is these gestures that remain very much appreciated in the region and would be a refreshing change for the region.

How will the Biden Administration differ from the previous administration in its approach to the Asia-Pacific and a rising China?

That’s a good question. My guess is that the big difference will be that the Biden Administration will try and seek allies in approaching difficult issues, for example, in respect to China, whereas the last administration generally wanted to ‘do it alone’. Let’s face it, a lot of the issues the United States has with China, the European Union has the same issues. Because of this, it does not make any sense not to act in a cooperative way, but I think the Trump Administration wanted to go its own way on a lot of these issues and was not particularly interested in that sort of collaboration, whereas the Biden Administration will seek to pursue a different course of action. Having said that, it may very well be that the Biden Administration continues to pursue a very aggressive policy with China, maybe without the same rhetoric and domestic political motivations for some of it, but let’s face it, a lot of the Democratic Party is just as sceptical of China as the Republican Party. So, even after the election, China has become even less popular within the United States, so unfortunately, in my view, Biden is going to have to deal with that issue, that domestically there is a lot of pressure to be critical of China. If he seeks out positive things in the relationship, he will do much better. All that happened in the last administration was a focus on everything negative between China and the US, rather than seeking the common ground of the mutual interests of the two countries, of which there are a lot. For example, China has expressed its interest in working at the multilateral level at the WTO. … This shows that there is something there to cooperate on. I think you can go through a number of those types of issues that line up.

Do you think we will see the continuation of this style of ‘go it alone’ regarding China, or do you think Biden will start incorporating the regional powers in relation to China?

I think I can speak more to the economics of that, rather than the politics. I think it was a major mistake of the Trump Administration to pull out of the CPTPP and the countries you have mentioned like Vietnam and Australia are all part of that. CPTPP was a great way for the US to maintain its strong relations and influence within the region, not just economically and politically and the Trump Administration, first day in office, pulled out of that, I think regretfully.

President Biden was a supporter of CPTPP back in the day, and of course the world changes a bit, [but] the US is going to need to find a way of engaging with these countries to stay active within the region and I personally think that joining CPTPP would do that. I do not think it is on the cards for the next few years, because there are so many things that the Biden Administration is having to focus on post-pandemic. As an economic strategy, it needs to be there if you want to think in terms of grand strategy or competition between the US and China. I think it is too often that we have all these great intellectuals that have studied the Cold War for so long […] the Soviet Union against the United States, and are now using that framework to apply it to China and the US. I think there are some common elements, but it is also not at all the same. Look at the RCEP and China!

A Noodles Bowl of Trade Agreements

What you have mentioned is very similar to that of Professor Menon who expressed positivity over RCEP. What are your thoughts?

I think I would agree with Jay in that I think it is a major step forward. We have always viewed free-trade agreements from a European perspective. European integration is a very different ballgame than the case of Asia. If you look at the RCEP, you do not see the same template that you see in the CPTPP, but you could never expect that. You could never expect a country like Cambodia to embrace the same intellectual property rules that you have within the CPTPP, they are just not as ready. If you want those countries to be apart of the organisation you cannot be as steep as you would like. Hence why throughout the RCEP agreement, you have these flexible agreements for the local income economies within the RCEP, which really means Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.

It is true that you already had countries that had been linked through free agreements. To be a negotiating partner in RCEP you needed a free-trade agreement with ASEAN. But you had a lot of zigzagging and had this noodles bowl effect in place with all of these agreements. The thing about RCEP is that it harmonized the rules between member states. I think this is going to be very important for boosting supply chains within the region, if you look at the ASEAN free-trade area itself. I remember my former colleague Dr Mohammad Madith of Malaysia characterising ASEAN as an investment agreement, and not a trade agreement trying to spur investment. I argue RCEP can do the same with the third big component that goes unnoticed being that of Northeast Asia. That is, the three countries that did not have a trade area between each other, these being South Korea, China and Japan. Now South Korea had a superficial agreement with China, but they were really waiting on RCEP to do something significant. But now you are going to have a free-trade area between those nations. Thinking about it from a strategic point of view, those types of agreements will mean deeper integration can only be good, because not all interactions are good.

Regional Players

Do you see China continuing its policy of moving out of China?

I think if you look at the new five-year plan that just came out, that has aimed to keep the share of manufacturing constant. I think it is going to be very difficult to do. I think you are going to see the service industry become more significant. It is important to remember that RCEP is based on ASEAN centrality, and not China. I think China is in everyone’s mind all the time, so if China is a part of an organisation, and the US is not, we think it is China-dominated. Obviously, China is a major player, but it is not the only player and I think China in RCEP sees some economic benefits, but sees much more in terms of other non-economic benefits. I have been studying free-trade areas for a very long time, and I have seen many that make no sense economically, but made sense politically, but I have never seen one that made sense economically, but not politically. They are often used as political tools. Look at the NAFTA Debate! You could not divorce the political and economic debates at play between the US and Mexico.

What role will a growing India play in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific at large?

I think India has a different approach to being outwardly orientated. East Asian nations are very outward-looking, while India is, somewhat, but is not nearly there. India still today remains sceptical of these things, and if you look at some of the reasons that India withdrew, they are very similar to the reasons the US withdrew from some of its bilateral trade deals, these being the trade deficits between India and other RCEP countries (specifically China). We as economists do not think that trade deficits are that meaningful, but politically it is very meaningful, especially in the US. In a lot of ways, it seems that India was there for Australia and Japan to act as a balance with China, but India being a part of it has been heavily complicated [given] the skirmishes between the two nations on the frontiers.

What do the Biden Administration’s sanctions on Myanmar’s leaders mean for the country, and the region at large?

I think that if the US and the Europeans decide to go back to the old days of the sanctions, then the most vulnerable are going to suffer. Here you have a country that was trying to liberalise, and had some success at liberalising. Now turning back the clock is going to hurt them and it is going to hurt the generals. I really hope it does not go in that direction even though there is going to be political pressure to do something. I agree that something should be done I just think it is going to be hard to do, and you know that economic sanctions like that are not the only tools… If they do, they will not go along with ASEAN, because it is very noninterventionist, but that will be a lot easier for ASEAN instead of the sanctions going into place.

ASEAN Overlooked

What is one thing that no one is talking about, but you feel needs to be discussed within academia?

I think that the one thing is unfortunate, but I believe that the role of ASEAN is highly underappreciated. It is a region with 50% more people than the European Union and it is very politically, economically, and culturally diverse, and is growing in strategical importance. But you do not hear about ASEAN in major dialogues. I think that is very important … to leverage a more unified ASEAN voice. I would like to see that done a lot better.

Nathan Wilson is a student of philosophy and politics at the University of Stirling, specialising in International Politics and Political Violence within the Asia-Pacific region. He previously studied abroad at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. 

Picture of Yangon, Myanmar by Zuyet Awarmatik via Unsplash

Picture of Prof. Michael Plummer, copyright of the subject. Supplied and published by permission. 

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