Think Tank (4/2021)
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New Book: “Contesting Sovereignty: Power and Practice in Africa and Southeast Asia”
22 Jul 2021

Dr Joel Ng, Research Fellow, Centre for Multilateralism Studies (CMS) launched his new book, “Contesting Sovereignty: Power and Practice in Africa and Southeast Asia” on 22 July 2021. Associate Professor Alan Chong, Head, CMS, gave the introductory remarks at the book launch, before Dr Ng elaborated on his latest title.

As sovereignty is jealously guarded by many nation-states, this begs the question of how and under what conditions contestations over it are resolved. In his book, Dr Ng examined how actors in the African Union (AU) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) negotiated sovereignty to accept, reject or qualify foreign norms. Specifically, outcomes depended on how actors managed and controlled negotiations by influencing norm circles, using existing norms, and applying metis — or diplomatic skill and opportunities — to persuade others and realise their goals.

In terms of policy implications, Dr Ng found that the skilful use of diplomatic practices matters significantly, but this is not often discussed compared to diplomatic achievements. Abstract foreign norms, meanwhile, fared worse than foreign norms that had been tried and tested in the region. Finally, he observed that foreign and external pressure play a lesser role in the adoption of norms, arguing that this might be counterproductive, as hard power does not always translate into soft power. Actors in the Global South have their own reasons in approaching foreign norms in the ways they do, separate from coercion or socialisation. It would be crucial to understand this to take a better pulse of different regional organisations rather than comparing them to the European Union.

Following this, Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, RSIS Executive Deputy Chairman, and Professor Khong Yuen Foong, Vice Dean (Research & Development) and Li Ka Shing Professor in Political Science, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, offered positive reviews of the book. They reiterated that the book provides a useful comparison on different ways of doing regionalism, particularly when considering the difficulties in obtaining data on these less transparent institutions, and insights into how consensus is formed.

Discussants at the ensuing Q&A session also agreed that obtaining consensus can be a tricky and long process that not only boils down to norm circles and diplomatic skill, but also timing. Despite this, the speakers added that consensus remains favourable for keeping regions together, given that less powerful states would not have as much influence on shared futures otherwise.

Catch it here on the RSISVideoCast YouTube channel:

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