The regional bloc needs to forge collective approaches to security challenges at home and abroad
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) badly needs to pay more attention to new challenges in the security landscape of both this and more far-flung regions of the globe, addressing them with intensive collective discussion.
Though a few commercial airliners have been shot down over the past decades, the downing in Eastern Europe last month of a passenger jet belonging to a national flag carrier from Southeast Asia was especially shocking for our region. On board the Malaysia Airlines flight were not only Southeast Asians but also Europeans and Australians, making it an international incident in which many countries and their governments are involved.
The plane was attacked in the skies over eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed rebels are battling for territory against the pro-Western government in Kiev. The incident took place amid long-standing tensions between the West (Europe and the United States) and Russia over Moscow’s perceived ambitions to retain its Soviet-era sphere of influence.
Asean had paid little attention to the conflict in that part of the world until Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 became a victim of the fighting. Malaysian is an active member of Asean, and it is impossible for the regional grouping to leave its member to struggle alone.
The challenge for Asean is to establish a collective stance to effectively deal with the case. Asean ministers meeting last week in Nay Pyi Taw released a joint communiqué calling “for those responsible for the heinous act be held to account and swiftly brought to justice”. The grouping is unlikely to make any further comment on the conflict in Ukraine, but it must nevertheless push harder in seeking justice for its member Malaysia.
Closer to home, regional powerhouse China is expanding its influence and power not only in Southeast Asia but also across the world. China has initiated economic cooperation with many of its regional neighbours but is also mired in conflict – specifically territorial disputes in the South China Sea – with many Asean members.
China and Asia’s dynamic growth over the past decade has drawn attention from global players. The United States, the world’s superpower, has made it clear that it wants to increase its presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Washington’s foreign-policy “pivot” to Asia has brought more geopolitical pressure to the region.
But Asean’s response to these new conditions has been minimal, with no fine-tuning of its policy or stance. At last week’s meeting in Nay Pyi Taw, for instance, Asean foreign ministers failed to deliver any concrete proposals to deal with the tensions in the South China Sea.
A proposal from Manila for a Triple Action Plan, which would include a freeze on all provocative activities in the trouble waters, got the cold shoulder from its Asean neighbours and China. Asean’s response was complicated by the fact that the Philippines’ proposal was almost identical to that suggested by the US.
Nevertheless, Asean must take some form of concrete action to prevent conflict in the South China Sea.
A meeting on the sidelines of the Nay Pyi Taw summit between Asean officials and their Chinese counterparts likely made some progress as Beijing agreed to what they called an “early harvest” for their free trade agreement. But, both sides retain different definitions of the term early harvest, and negotiations likely left Asean with little time to push harder on measures to prevent an escalation of tensions in the South China Sea.
The Nay Pyi Taw summit illustrated that, once again, though Asean leaders and officials meet quite often, they still don’t have a strong collective stance when it comes to dealing with pressure from major powers.