Barbie makes a dash in ASEAN

Jul 13, 2023
Barbie doll portrait.

Geo-politics is played on a world chessboard often by sad oldies in sober suits. To keep membership exclusive the polymath gamers use polysyllables and foreign tongues. Clearly not the place for a perky American doll.

Yet Barbie has made it to the top without studying at the Sorbonne. She’s getting into the space of Xi Jinping and Joe Biden, though not through intellect and learning – qualities sadly absent in Disney princesses.

In her latest film (43 so far) the hedonistic Barbie World collapses into Real World where misadventures start. Here she encounters the ASEAN Way. It started in Jakarta and once had purpose, even its own anthem with English lyrics. Now it’s marching in circles.

Indonesia is not the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but there’d be no such grouping without the world’s fourth most populous nation to hold the show together. It was set up by the Republic’s second president General Soeharto at the behest of the US as an anti-Red barrier during the Cold War.

This ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. That should have marked ASEAN’s time to terminate. However, like Hollywood escapism the league lived on, largely in its birthplace which still bans Communism.

Ironically ASEAN now includes two Red states – Vietnam and Laos. Cambodia leans towards China while the rest are equivocally pro-US.

Four of the ten members are ‘flawed democracies’ according to The Economist Intelligence Unit – Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. The others include places where truth-tellers, liberal academics, dissidents and journos live in dread.

In a Barbie World Australia should be in the mid-North Atlantic, close to people, cultures and acronyms we can understand, like NATO and the EU.

ASEAN is neither an economic block nor a defence grouping. It wants to be the pivot of the region’s geopolitics, but can’t fix a thing because all ten members must agree on any decision, and must not interfere in internal affairs.

Fine ideals, lousy reality.

Walter Lohman, director of the US conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation has been scathing‘ASEAN aims to be a big presence on the regional stage … but its ability to navigate great power politics relies on it being relevant to the most critical challenges the region faces.

‘That relevancy is being called into question on two key issues: turmoil in Myanmar and the continued territorial impasse in the South China Sea.’

This is where Barbie debuted. A coarse ‘map’ in the film with a few minuscule dashes considered likely to inflame Chinese sensitivities has triggered a ban in Vietnam of the comedy.

The Philippines thinks it might follow suit lest Big Beijing huffs and puffs. Inland ASEAN states don’t care. So much for unity.

This is so juvenile it’s surely a spoof or a film publicist creating controversy to fill US cinemas. The squint-and-it’s-gone moment looks more like a Rorschach inkblot test than a cartographer’s creation.

More serious is the human crisis in Myanmar, formerly Burma, and a democracy till the military (Tatmadaw) pounced two and a half years ago. Eight weeks after soldiers seized the elected State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, ASEAN leaders held an ‘emergency summit’ to scratch their skulls.

The result was a ‘five-point plan’. This seeks an end to violence; constructive dialogue; appointment of a special ASEAN envoy; access to Myanmar and all parties, and humanitarian assistance.

Even before the coup, Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims were being brutally persecuted. Almost a million have fled to ‘the world’s largest refugee camp’ in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi asserts there’s been much quiet diplomacy going on as though the generals are rational men open to reason. Civil society groups in Myanmar have called for the plan to be ditched.

Even Indonesian president Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo who has taken reputational risks by trying to play peacemaker as current ASEAN chair, has admitted there’s been ‘no significant progress’.

Despite these caveats Australia continues to laud ASEAN as an effective and important block.

In this month’s meeting in Sydney, Jokowi and PM Anthony Albanese ‘reaffirmed their commitment to ASEAN centrality and the importance of an inclusive ASEAN-led architecture for regional peace, stability, and prosperity.’

This sits awkwardly alongside the Oslo-based Peace Research Institute finding that at least 6,000 civilians were killed in the first 20 months following the Myanmar coup.

The report was published three weeks before the leaders’ ‘communique’ on their talks. This mentioned Myanmar thrice, expressed ‘deep concern’, repeated the ineffective five-point plan and spruiked ASEAN 25 times.

Here’s why. About 666 million people / consumers, live in ASEAN states. There’s already an Australia-NZ free trade agreement (AANZFTA) in place. This will be updated at an ASEAN meeting in Jakarta in September.

Although inter-nation bonds are being discussed with other countries in the broader region, like India, South Korea and Japan, only ASEAN plugs into the smaller more disparate states where Australia wants to sell its wheats and meats.

If Australia can’t, or won’t, call out the faults, Malaysia can. Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim reckons it’s time to review the ASEAN non-interference principle to provide ‘a new vision that could give us some flexibility in order to navigate and manoeuvre the way forward.’

With the present structure, such reform won’t happen. Best dissolve and start again. There’s a precedent. Before ASEAN the Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation was a sort of NATO in Asia.

Although headquartered in Bangkok it was dominated by non-Asian nations – Australia, France, NZ, the UK and the US. It arose in 1954 and collapsed in 1977.

British diplomat Sir James Cable once described SEATO as ‘a fig leaf for the nakedness of American policy’, and a ‘zoo of paper tigers’. The latter line fits ASEAN. It also sounds like a place in Barbie World.

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