Asean at 50: China-US rivalry now a key concern

opinion June 12, 2017 01:00

By Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation

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Nobody could predict that as Asean moves past its 50-year mark, a new international environment would emerge that will require the regional group to do further soul-searching. New buzzwords about uncertainties and unpredictability — due to sudden reservations about policies – have been the product of power shifts caused by the new style of US leadership and its perceived global role.

Where the pathways will lead in the future is extremely hard to gauge these days, especially in regard to relations between Asean and key major powers. 

For the past five decades, although Asean was at the receiving end, they knew full well the scope of the Cold War and certain results that would come from their actions or lack thereof. Today, that is no longer the case. The Asean Community is now moving steadily with policies that affect 645 million people, who are still on a high learning curve. 

A frequently asked question is whether the current Asean leaders are as capable as their predecessors, and will be able to keep the grouping intact and relevant. The answer is they are capable enough. 

Democracy has spread wider over the past two decades and bigger middle income groups have allowed new kinds of leaders to join the ranks with different personalities, temperaments and priorities. Essentially, these people come from political and cultural environments that made the group resilient.

With the world’s 70-year-old power structures looking shaken to the core, Asean must stand ready to respond and act. Obviously, nobody knows how the future will play out, but some scenarios, notably between Asean and external powers, can be discerned.

Asean responses will certainly depend on the state of power-play between the US and China at the top tier, then filtering down to middle tiers made up of remaining members of the East Asia such as Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and Russia. In addition, Asean will intensify its political and security dialogue with Canada, the EU, as well as international agencies.

During the Cold War, Asean was pretty much used to flow-on effects from US-Russia relations at the regional and global level. 

Asean leaders knew how to avoid damage when the two powers were colliding. However, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Russia’s role and profile in this part of the world was dramatically trimmed down. 

Today, Moscow has more confidence and wants to reclaim its past influence in Southeast Asia.

As it turned out, Moscow’s lack of leadership has further impeded this renewed ambition in Asean. It is now considered a blessing in disguise that US-Russian rivalry was no longer playing out in this neighbourhood. At present it is rivalry between the US and China that dominates discourse and concern in the region, both in economic and security terms.

So far, Asean has handled the US-China rivalry moderately well at two levels. As a group, Asean maintains common strategic objectives with the two great powers. Washington and Beijing respect Asean centrality and attend all avenues of the Asean-led mechanism. However, divergent engagement each Asean member has with the two major powers has caused some concern that it could divide the group, depending on the level of security and economic commitments.

As tension in South China Sea rose, Asean members continue to value their national and regional interests. So, their positions and reactions have been uneven and at best time and issue sensitive. But it remains to be seen how Asean will juggle the desire for the US to play its traditional security role but also welcoming China’s much needed infrastructural fund under the Belt and Road Initiatives spearheaded by Beijing.

In the long term, this will have an impact on intra-Asean ties and local demands for infrastructure funding. Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand have all welcomed China’s infrastructural funds with country-specific conditions. But more time and variables need to be assessed on the extent that this economic influence will have over regional security ties.

In coming months and years, Asean will put more efforts into forge closer cooperation in all areas with the second tier powers such as Japan, India, Australia, the EU and Canada. 

Asean makes a distinction between strategic partnership and dialogue partners. In that sense, both Canada and the EU are still outside the framework of regional architecture. It must be noted here that Canada has made a quick comeback to rejuvenate ties with Asean after nearly a decade of inertia. There is a mutual desire to have Canada join the East Asia Summit as soon as possible to help balance ties vis-a-vis China’s rise within the emerging security architecture.

Canada has already been invited as the Asean’s chair special guest to attend the EAS in November at Clark Airbase, while the EU struggles to gain respect and acknowledge its security imperatives in this part of the world. Without deliverable multi-year action plans and clear direction from Brussels, Europe’s four-decade-old ties with Asean will remain at the fringe.

Finally, Asean leaders must spend more time together consulting and making decisions on their common challenges. They have ample time and clear priorities to forge policies bilaterally, but not collectively. Now, time has come for them to meet and consult more informally when responding to an uncertain future. 

Retreats should be convened more often, rather than being perceived as a ritual pre-summit get-together. Currently, Asean leaders do not have sufficient time to digest issues at hand they have to decide on. They simply rubber-stamp the recommendations of senior officials, whose views are based on the lowest denominators rather than what is best for the region.

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