A Common ASEAN stand on Geopolitical issues in Asia

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.

LCS modern warshipAnd 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?China-Philippines in SCS 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.

6 thoughts on “A Common ASEAN stand on Geopolitical issues in Asia

  1. ..some ASEAN countries — notably the Philippines — has taken the path of unilateral action. Its stand-off against Chinese warships last year…
    — Farish M. Noor

    It was Philippines’ warships against Chinese fishing boats. The article twisting facts, looks like it is spreading ‘China’s threat theory’!

    China has been benign and will always benign to neighbors if they are not being used as foreign tools by big powers like Japan and USA.

  2. Can meh?

    4 have socialist ideologies (Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar)
    the other 6 have various leaning of democracy.

    PRC has no history of occupational threats. Infact it was the other way round in the early 1900s which many nations staking claims along various PRC coastal cities like Shanghai, Qingdao, Xiamen, Huian, Canton, Macau, HK.

    Infact PRC ceded North Vietnam otherwise going by history it can re-annex NV as what the Pinoys are putting up cases for Sabah.

    The ASEAN stand is perhaps a more prudent policy of check and balance but by involving the US through Pinoy backdoor puts the whole situation on its edge.

    Dont forget, India is involve through Petro-Vietnam. OTOH PRC is finding ways to cooperate with India and the latest is deeper space ventures.

    Suddenly ASEAN looks like a bride every so worthy for huge dowries. Like an indian bride, our necks will soon be weighed down by jewels. Welcome to the new dawn of ASEAN. May the best bridegroom wins.

  3. As I have mentioned so many times in earlier comments, the next Sino Cold War theater will be the South China Sea, ASEAN as a whole can’t keep it’s act together,with only Indonesia trying it’s best diplomatically to cool things down.Soon countries will have to choose which side they’ll be,the mighty Arms industries will gloat at the situation,ASEAN must encourage India to flex it’s muscle vis-a vis with it’s Northern-Eastern neighbour, then perhaps…..oh what the hell do I know about diplomacy?? What I can figure is, you’d have to create Demand,then there’s Supply…..Oouch!!!

  4. The author’s prescription doesn’t address ASEAN’s main problem – lack of political will.

    Far too many states only pay lip service to community building. To make up for this shortcoming, ASEAN has always taken a “top down” approach which appears in the form of lofty statements or declarations by the Leaders at the annual ASEAN Summits.

    It was to overcome this problem that the Bali Concord was adopted to guide the evolution of the ASEAN Community. The Charter was supposed to be an institutional overhaul to enable it to deal with community type issues and also to give the organization a legal status to be able to act on the organization’s behalf.

    Alas what eventually happened was that the draft Charter was well watered down. But to give the impression that future progress was possible the Charter was called a “living document”. Now we don’t even hear that term !

    Therefore raising the status of the Secretary General would not solve anything. He is already of ministerial rank. He also sits in with the Leaders during summits which gives him a de facto “head of state” rank. Therefore another declaration raising his rank would be another “top heavy” decision so long as member states continue to take a cynical approach to community building.

    Therefore the solution should be to emphasize “bottom up “strengthening of the community. One of the things that could be done is to give the ASEAN secretariat enough resources to finance and support community building projects under the three pillars of the ASEAN Community. Member states still pay about one million dollars each annually which is vastly insufficient to finance its activities. Apparently a proposal to increase membership contribution based on GDP or some other measure had been discussed extensively. Wealthier members, apparently, worried that they might have to fork out more, killed the idea.

    A sense of community must genuinely evolve among member states. One of the ways this can happen is by enhancing the Secretariat’s resources. For the time being, it is probably better for the new Secretary General to push for member states to re-visit the idea of financial resources so that at least ASEAN would have greater financial capacity. Member states need to signal their commitment to community building by committing more resources so that the Secretariat would have the resource freedom to support some of the projects independently.

    Member states must be prepared to project unity at a global level. Its about time for ASEAN to have its own Ambassador to the United Nations. An ASEAN “Embassy” operated from its own resources would ideally facilitate a sense of community. At a later stage ASEAN could have representation in other international bodies as at least establish working relations between with them.

  5. Pingback: Japan seeks defence ties with ASEAN amid China rows | China Daily Mail

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