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Sunday, 18 November 2012

Asean facing new regional geopolitics

Asean can no longer duck difficult matters of regional security and must fashion a more pro-active strategy in the new environment.

THE Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit, as well as other high-level meetings, notably the East Asia Summit (EAS), takes place from Nov 18 to 20 with its centrality in regional order-building under threat.

While the regional grouping is evidently disunited on how to pursue disputes four of its members have with China in the South China Sea, the cause runs deeper: the new regional geopolitics informed by a strategic contest for influence in Southeast Asia between China and the United States.

For over two years now the American strategic “pivot” towards the Asia-Pacific has arrested Southeast Asia’s strategic drift towards China.

The Asian giant’s economic rise and success not only won the admiration of Southeast Asian states, but also helped Beijing establish strong trade and financial ties with them.

Especially since the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, when the United States was conspicuous by its inaction, China has forged deep ties with the region by addressing that crisis with regional states (not devaluing the RMB was of great help to struggling Southeast Asian economies), and by a close association now formalised in Asean + 3 (the three being China, Japan and South Korea).

In January 2010, the China-Asean Free Trade Area came into effect.

The United States had been pre-occupied with faraway military adventures in the Middle East and Central Asia, as well as, of course, with the financial and economic crisis since 2008. The pivot is a reassertion of interest to check the United States’ own drift towards sub-primacy in Southeast Asia.

In November last year, the United States joined the now 18-member EAS (comprising the Asean 10, China, Japan, South Korea, Austra­lia, New Zealand, India, Russia and America).

The previous June, at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the United States Secretary of Defence had announced the rebalancing of American naval forces in Asia-Pacific to 60% from 50% by 2020.

At a regional security conference in July 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared American interest and commitment to freedom of navigation and the peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea.

This was significant as it put China on notice which had been involved in a number of incidents at sea with smaller Southeast Asian claimant states before then, and since.

The United States has also reasserted its own economic interest in the region where American investment is still substantially larger than China’s. The strategic under-pinning is the Trans-Pacific Partnership which the United States is vigorously pursuing – and from which China is excluded.

With the contest joined, between a rising and a returning power, the new geopolitical environment presents a challenge to Asean. The grouping is premised on a regional order free of great power affiliation. Yet there was a desire for a counterweight to China which was becoming assertive in its South China Sea claims. But a counterweight to do what? Constrain, deter or contain China?

These questions and issues are discussed in a Special Report of LSE IDEAS (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), which concludes that Asean cannot any longer duck difficult matters of regional security and must fashion a more pro-active strategy if it is not to be a bystander in an essentially bipolar, even if crowded, regional space.

The conflict in the South China Sea has become the first serious test in the strategic contest between China and the United States in Southeast Asia. Indeed it is the test also of whether Asean unity will hold.

For the first time in its 45-year history, Asean foreign ministers failed to agree on a joint communique at the end of their meeting in Phnom Penh last July because of differences over how to word the incidents and disputes some of the members have with China – with specific reference to recent incidents or only generally.

China was the invisible elephant in the room. Cambodia, the chair of Asean, took Beijing’s side in only wanting a general reference. The Philippines, which was involved in a two-month stand-off with China last April, wanted specific reference to incidents which disturbed the peace – with Vietnam’s support which has had the most number of clashes with China. With no consensus, the meeting broke up in some disarray.

It is thought there are now two camps in Asean – with Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos supporting China, and the other seven opposed to Chinese belligerence in the South China Sea.

Actually, there is a soft middle of Asean states which believe the Philippines was over-emotional at the meeting and has been encouraged by the American pivot to take a firm stand. In any case, Asean is divided.

This is an uncomfortable fact Asean has to address. But it is not clear it wants to.

When the communique was not released, it was described first as a disaster.

Then as a dent to the organisation’s credibility. Later still, a setback. Finally, it became commonplace to claim the different perspectives on the South China Sea disputes do not on their own define what Asean is about. Asean is in denial.

Asean disunity will sour all other worthwhile efforts. The new geopolitics of the region has already drawn member states closer to China or the United States – whether or not they are involved in the South China Sea claims. How is Asean to find consensus, in the way it has always functioned, in this new environment?

Indonesia took the lead after the no-communique disaster to paper over the cracks by coming up with a six-point after-event agreement. Then its foreign minister worked hard on the code of conduct in the South China Sea which has eluded the region for the past decade.

Jakarta came up with what it called a “zero-draft” code, to placate Chinese sensitivities who have never been particularly keen on a specific, multilateral and binding code over an issue of “sovereign right”.

At a meeting of senior officials from Asean and China in Pattaya at the end of October, there was no agreement on the code.

It was put behind the development of guidelines to the declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea, the UN General Assembly-like resolution first agreed to also all of 10 years ago.

It cannot be expected that Asean leaders at their summit this month will be able to forge a common regional perspective on the South China Sea dispute. But it must at least formally promote the Indonesian effort on the code of conduct as an Asean initiative.

Beyond this, the leaders must recognise the maritime dispute is a thorn in the flesh of regional peace and stability.

The danger of miscalculation by China, the more active Asean claimant states or, indeed, the United States could lead to a major conflagration.

Apart from the code, the leaders must launch a search for the means and paradigm that would find common benefit, based on joint development, perhaps founded on the idea of the common heritage of mankind – something which all developing countries were wedded to throughout the long and arduous negotiation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

President Obama is attending the EAS meeting following the Asean summit, underlining American involvement in the region.

So will Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao who will be stepping down next March – although continuity of China’s policy in the region and on the South China Sea is quite assured, as can be gathered from assertive statements at the 18th Party Congress.

Asean leaders would want to present as united a front as possible if they wish their organisation to be perceived as a third pole in the emerging regional balance of power.

Comment By Munir Majid
> Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat, is visiting senior fellow at LSE IDEAS. The full 90-page special report can be accessed at

Related posts:
Asean, an arena of superpowers  

South-East Asia in the frontline of US containing China rise?

1 comment:

  1. In facts, US is more belligerence than China and among 10 members Asean nations, only 4: Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have disputes with China over South China Sea. No way for US, the outsider to mess up the Asian century led by China's rise.