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Amid rising tension, Myanmar takes the helm of Asean

It is extremely unusual for Asean foreign ministers to issue a statement during their "retreat", unless there is something really vexing happening. That was the case during their first informal gathering last week in Bagan under the new Asean chair, Myanmar.

For the second time in a month, Asean has reaffirmed its position on freedom of navigation and overflights when discussing regional security issues, including recent developments in the East and South China Sea as well as the Korean Peninsula. Obviously, Asean has been worried that the rising tension would destabilise the region and intensify rivalries among the major powers.

At the Asean-Japan summit in Tokyo last month, Asean leaders agreed on a common position on freedom of overflight with Japan, which has cried foul against China's declaration of an air defence zone above the East China Sea. It was the first time that Asean held a common position on the overflight controversy.

In Bagan, both Vietnam and the Philippines raised the issue of China's new fishing rules in the South China Sea. The two countries are situated next to the disputed maritime zone and would be the most affected by the rules, which became effective this month. Under the new measures, foreign vessels must get approval before entering the 2 million square kilometres of territorial water claimed around Hainan Island in the 3.5 million square km South China Sea. Hanoi and Manila have protested the Chinese action.

With this first Asean statement on the regional situation, the Bagan retreat served as two barometers. First, it revealed how Asean would handle its external relations, especially the China-Japan rivalry. Second, it provided insight into the new Asean chair and its leadership.

The Bagan statement clearly showed that maritime security and freedom of navigation and overflight in the East and the South China Sea will dominate the security-related discussion for the rest of the year within Asean and its dialogue partners. These issues will be on the Asean agenda as well as all the Asean-led meetings, including the Asean Regional Forum, East Asia Summit, Asean Defence Ministerial Meeting Plus and Asean+3 summit. The China-Japan ties will also loom large this year as the backdrop to Asean's overall external relations.

Asean has excellent ties with China and Japan. As the world's No 2 and No 3 economic powers, their economic strength and investment have contributed to the region's growth and prosperity. Asean was the biggest beneficiary when the two were on good terms. Now the future of Asean's economic integration with the broader East Asia largely depends on their goodwill and cooperation.

Before the current flare-up of territorial disputes and the air security zone, Asean took it for granted that the China-Japan ties would be ameliorated after cycles of emotional outburst and protest over historical legacies because of their investment, resource and technological interdependence. That is no longer the case now as both sides turn nationalistic and are garnering support from local constituencies. They are willing to bear all the losses and sufferings incurred.

In its nearly five-decade history, Asean has excelled in coping with the US-China confrontation during and after the Cold War. It is a different ball game for the China-Japan imbroglio now as they are Asean's next-door neighbours with strong economic and cultural ties. At this juncture, Beijing and Tokyo want to infuse security components in their bilateral relations with Asean. China under President Xi Jinping and Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are wooing Asean with their personal visits and overwhelming aid proposals. They are determined to strengthen security and defence cooperation with individual Asean members and the group as a whole.

Under these new circumstances, Asean would need fresh thinking to engage both China and Japan in ways that would not harm the collective interests of Asean. That would be easier said than done. Asean was near breaking point in 2012 when its unity was challenged over the South China dispute. With a stronger security platform, the tripartite Asean-China-Japan relations will certainly be tense in months to come. The Asean chair will be under constant pressure to take sides — any misstep would be destructive.

That helps explain why Myanmar receives all the attention this year as it is chairing Asean at a most critical time — 17 years after its membership began — when the global economic weight is shifting to Asia along with rising tension both in the air and at sea. As a first timer, Nay Pi Taw was succinct in ensuring its chairmanship would also promote domestic stability and prosperity, not to mention further uplift its regional and international profile.

If the outcome of the Bagan retreat serves as any indication, Myanmar will place priority on Asean's external relations and measures that would help new Asean members to integrate economically with Asean, such as SMEs' capacity building, bridging the income and development gap and policies related to a greener economy. U Ye Htut, the Asean chair's spokesperson, made clear at his first press conference last week that domestic issues such as the Rohingya crisis would not be raised in any Asean meeting.

Emerging from decades of isolation, Myanmar now has the unique opportunity to manifest its diplomatic finesse and the wisdom of its long-cherished "independent and neutral foreign policy". Myanmar's success as the chair will also be an Asean success.


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