February 18, 2013
A Common ASEAN stand on Geopolitical issues in Asia
by Farish M. Noor@http://www.thenst.com.my
UNSETTLING DEVELOPMENTS: A new era of Asian geopolitical rivalry is already upon us and this calls for a common ASEAN stand
WHILE several countries in the ASEAN region are preparing for their respective general elections this year and in the coming year, it is understandable that the attention of their respective societies is directed at the heated developments in the domestic political sphere. This may be expected of any society that is in the midst of domestic political contestation, but it is a dangerous form of myopia that will have potentially serious long-term consequences.
For developments very close to our part of the world indicate that the political temperature across Asia is set to rise pretty soon, and one does not have to consult an astrologer or a feng-shui expert to see what the future holds for us.
In the space of a week, startling developments have occurred, following closely behind one another: Japan’s announcement that it will be giving several patrol boats to the Philippines so that the latter can more effectively patrol the waters of the South China Sea was not a move that was calculated to endear either Tokyo or Manila to Beijing.
Soon after, Western media sources reported that American intelligence services have come to the conclusion that the United States’ economic progress may be hindered by covert attempts at corporate espionage by none other than America’s greatest rival, China.
In due course North Korea declared that it has succeeded in its third underground nuclear explosion test, and made no secret that the North Korean weapons development programme was intended as a deterrent against the US. China in turn looked on these developments coolly, offering little comment.
And as we know this year America will send to Southeast Asia its first LCS modern warships, the latest specimens of a new breed of multi-purpose combat vessels, as it repositions itself in Asia as part of its “Asian Pivot” policy.
Put all these factors together and we can see that on the very doorstep of ASEAN a new realignment of power is taking place, accelerated even further by new weapon platforms and weapon delivery systems that the world has never seen. It also confirms what this writer and many others have suspected all along, which is that within our lifetime we may see a worrying escalation of proxy conflict in our part of the world.
China’s expansionist moves into the South China Sea will probably continue as Chinese fishing fleets scour the ocean to seek more food for its growing population; and as it does so it is bound to incur a reaction from its closest neighbours.
Adding fuel to the fire has been China’s unilateral gestures that were not intended to appease anyone, including the threat to board and search foreign vessels.
How will ASEAN react to all this, and what has been the reaction so far? Firstly, it can be seen that ASEAN has not been able to take a common position on these developments and some ASEAN countries — notably the Philippines — has taken the path of unilateral action. Its stand-off against Chinese warships last year rang alarm bells across the world among the security community, yet once again the communities of ASEAN were preoccupied with domestic issues.
The news that Japan may be handing the Philippines patrol ships is bound to complicate things, bringing Japan closer to the Philippines, but in the process, isolating and encircling China even further. One only wonders what will happen when American naval hardware arrives in the region this year, and what this might do to ASEAN-China relations.
Perhaps the time has come for the governments and societies of ASEAN to pull their heads out of the sand and address these issues before they visit us unannounced. It is astounding to note that with the sole exception of the Philippines, the public domain in other ASEAN countries have not addressed these issues at all. The form and content of debate in the respective Parliaments and assemblies of the other countries of the region remain focused almost exclusively on domestic issues and local political personalities. Nor does the Asean public seem aware or concerned about these matters, though they should be.
The reason why we cannot avoid to address the issue is simple enough: China happens to be the biggest and most important trading partner for most of the countries of ASEAN today. China’s investment into the vast communicative infrastructure that consists of road, rail and port links in mainland Southeast Asia will have an immediate impact on millions of lives that will be affected by the inflow of Chinese goods and capital.
Whether we realise it or not, today and in the near future the success of ASEAN economies will depend on whether we can work out a feasible and stable economic partnership with the great giant of Asia. But in terms of our common security, ASEAN states remain beholden to the West, and the US in particular.
How is this two-way relationship to be managed, if the two most important role-players in the Asian region are growing antagonistic towards each other?
It is for these reasons that what happens as far away as North Korea, Japan, China and the Philippines matters to the rest of us. Globalisation has rendered geography less important as spatial distance is rendered null and void thanks to temporal proximity.
A nuclear test in North Korea elicits a response from Japan and America and the West by extension, and sooner than later we will have to accept that we too may be drawn into this complex web of geopolitics. For this sake, I sincerely hope and pray that in the midst of our domestic politicking we will look further afield and realise that the new era of Asian geopolitical rivalry is already upon us.