Sihasak Phuangketkeow, permanent secretary at the Foreign Ministry, is calling on the region to pay more attention and be prepared for rising competition among major powers, as well as engage with China to enhance peace and mutual interest.
Speaking at an international conference yesterday, co-hosted by Bangkok Bank, Mitr Phol, Huawei, China Daily and The Nation, Sihasak said Asean faced a “dichotomy” of dynamic growth and rivalry among major powers namely China, Japan and the United States.
China is a rising power and key player, both in the region and the world. Japan, meanwhile, is seeking a greater role in global and regional defence and security, while the US is implementing strategic rebalancing, better known as its pivot policy, towards Asia and the Pacific. “When we have rising and established powers meeting in the same arena, there is bound to be tension and a very real potential for conflict,” he pointed out.
As strategic relations among the major powers are played out, it will impact the region’s flashpoints, such as in the South and East China Sea and on the Korean Peninsula, he said.
“But this is not to say that the outlook is bleak. It is only to caution that the direction of current geopolitics is a risk factor for Asia’s continued economic growth and development,” he added. Though there are some tensions in the South and East China seas owing to territorial disputes involving China, Japan and some Asean members, in addition to troubles in the Korean Peninsula resulting from North Korea’s missile tests, the region is relatively peaceful. Peace allows the region to pursue economic development, he said.
“Therefore, we must do what we can to maintain this conducive environment,” Sihasak said.
“We must not let geopolitics threaten to unravel the region’s economic gains and undercut our potential for further growth and development,” he told the conference, which was mostly attended by businesspersons and investors. Since Asean is transforming into a community by the end of next year, the regional grouping plans to integrate and connect within itself as well as with China, Sihasak said.
In the context of Asean-China relations and connectivity, Thailand is in a good position and plays a key role as a bridge between the region and the rising power. Sihasak highlighted a road link from China via Laos to Thailand as a physical connection between China and Asean, noting that a bridge across Mekong River in Chiang Khong had been completed last year.
China has been a dialogue partner of Asean since 1996 and a strategic partner a decade ago. Free trade agreements (FTA) between the two sides created a market of nearly 2 billion people, with both sides aiming to achieve some US$1 trillion in trade by 2020.
Wu Zhiwu, the Chinese embassy’s minister counsellor, told the conference that Asean was the third-biggest trade partner of China. Beijing is adjusting its economic strategy from export-led growth to domestic consumption, service orientation and outbound investment as well as tourism promotion, he said. He added this new strategy would benefit Asean.
Sihasak said Thailand welcomed China’s proposal to take Asean-China cooperation into its second decade. This would include upgrading the Asean-China FTA; expediting efforts to enhance physical connectivity, such as through construction of the Trans-Asian Railway as well as the establishment of an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; and promoting maritime cooperation by way of building a “Maritime Silk Road” of modern times.
On the security front, Asean and China are in the process of having a legally binding code of conduct for South China Sea, where Beijing has territorial conflicts with several members of Asean. The negotiations, in which Sihasak is intensively involved, made significant progress as both sides agreed to conclude the Code of Conduct, he said.