Countries at the Crossroads

July 3, 2013

MY COMMENT: This article concludes that “ASEAN has to become more cohesive, relevant and effective if Southeast Asian nations do not want to become objects of competition for influence among major powers”. ASEAN is a loose organization and cannot be effective if all it does is talk, all talk and little action. It claims to want to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to issues concerning Southeast Asian security but because it is incoherent and lacking in focus, ASEAN is rapidly losing credibility as body committed to building a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality. In stead, ASEAN will likely be caught in renewed big power rivalry namely between the United States and China. –Din Merican


Awidya Santikajaya, Canberra | Opinion, Jakarta Post | Mon, June 03 2013, 11:36 AM

Julia GAustralian Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently launched the 2013 Defense White Paper, which analysts say concerns mostly Australia-US-China relations. The paper confirms China’s military modernization as a natural outcome of its economic growth, a stance that is different from the 2009 Defense White Paper, which emphasized the need for substantial improvement in Australia’s military capabilities in response to China’s increasing power.

While we cannot deny the fact that China is still the key to Australia’s defense strategy, there is certainly a paradigm shift in Australia’s defense posture that sees the growing importance of Southeast Asia.

The new White Paper reveals that Southeast Asia is not only pivotal given its close geographical proximity to China, but also for its strategic position connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The paper even identifies Southeast Asia as the geographical center of the emerging Indo-Pacific system. After decades of relative ignorance, the Indian Ocean is now becoming increasingly critical and strategic.

From an energy security point of view, the Indian Ocean is a crucial lane for transporting oil and gas from Middle East and North Africa to the center of global growth in the Asia-Pacific region. The intertwining significance of both the Indian and Pacific oceans has underlined Southeast Asia as an emerging center of gravity. While major powers are busy increasing their influence in Southeast Asia, the Australian Defense White Paper itself emphasizes the significance of Southeast Asia’s stability and peace to Australia’s strategic posture.

Not only Australia, but also other major powers have also expressed greater interests in Southeast Asia. India, for instance, during the last year’s ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit, agreed with Southeast Asian nations to foster broader security cooperation beyond the existing framework for combating terrorism signed in 2003. India is also looking at possibilities for more bilateral security engagements with Southeast Asian nations, including with the visit of the Indian defense minister to Myanmar earlier this year.

The US has also actively approached Southeast Asia by strengthening America’s military deployments in the South West Pacific and advancing political and economic relationships. On the other hand, China’s intention to advance military cooperation with Southeast Asian nations is heavily constrained by disputes over the South China Sea.

Nevertheless, China is consistently seeking military-to-military relations once other major powers are absent from the region or Southeast Asian nations aim to play soft-balancing cards. For example, it cooperated with Laos, Myanmar and Thailand in joint patrol operations on the Mekong River.

AseanIn managing security relations with Southeast Asia as well as shaping the Indo-Pacific security architecture, the majority of powers embrace ASEAN-led regional schemes, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Defense Ministerial Meeting (ADMM). Non-ASEAN powers praise ASEAN for its initiative and commitment to multilateralism in which dialogue and confidence building have become the core principles.

Processes in ASEAN have provided a positive foundation for the region’s security cooperation. Having said that, in the era of the emerging importance of Southeast Asia, there is continuous curiosity about whether ASEAN’s mechanisms effectively satisfy the interests of non-ASEAN powers, as well as protecting the interests of ASEAN nations themselves.

While non-ASEAN major powers have formally accepted the norms and procedures of ASEAN-centered institutions, the main obstacles to sustaining these institutions come from ASEAN members. There are at least three issues that need to be seriously addressed.

First, ASEAN’s credibility in leading regional building in the Indo-Pacific is weakened by the lack of a cohesive stance among ASEAN members. It is true that for decades, divergent security perceptions and interests within ASEAN have encouraged members to engage in close and constructive dialogues. Nevertheless, extreme diverse and contrasting positions within ASEAN will only see security arrangements dominated significantly by political gravitation from non-ASEAN major powers, instead of being led by ASEAN.

Second, existing ASEAN mechanisms provide various interpretations in dealing with political security issues. Specifically, its chairman and secretary-general rotation system has weakened ASEAN’s sustainability and consistency to carry out certain programs and to deal with particular challenges.

For instance, in responding to recent conflicts in Myanmar in which hundreds of Muslim Rohingya have died in just a few months, there was little effort made by the current Secretary General to contribute to conflict resolution, unlike the previous Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan who proactively warned Naypyidaw about the danger of continuous ethnic violence, including by proposing tripartite talks between ASEAN, the United Nations and Myanmar.

There was also no initiative by the current chair — Brunei Darussalam — to address conflict between the Malaysian government and the loyalists of Sulu Sultanate in Sabah. In dealing with security issues, ASEAN is influenced by each country’s or individual’s initiative and interest, rather than structured and binding procedures.

Third, there is the trend of a security dilemma within ASEAN. Feeling insecure about threats from other ASEAN countries and from volatile major power commitments to security alliances, Southeast Asian nations have been improving their military capability. Indonesia, for instance, planned to buy more than a dozen Sukhoi fighter jets and already secured contract for 130 Leopard 2 tanks. Thailand, at the same time, increased military spending at 7 percent from the previous year. There is nothing wrong with increasing the defense budget, but there is also an urgent need for ASEAN to mitigate any risks coming from a small scale arms race.

In his recent speech in Washington, D.C., Indonesian Foreign MinisterMarty Marty Natalegawa entertained the idea of an “Indo-Pacific Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation” in order to advance trust and communication in the region. The idea will possibly have a greater chance of success since all nations in the Indo-Pacific region heavily require trust to build sustainable peace and stability.

Having said that, the wider geographical scope of security arrangements, the more fluid, unpredictable and complex are the geopolitical rivalries among nations. In this sense, in this current age of uncertain geopolitical change, ASEAN has to become more cohesive, relevant and effective if Southeast Asian nations do not want to become objects of competition for influence among major powers.

The writer is a foreign policy observer who lives in Canberra.

8 thoughts on “Countries at the Crossroads

  1. 10 nations divided into various groupings in ideologies, culture, education, history, languages and religions. What are the common grounds to pull them together? A common threat or common goal? Which pull direction is stronger? Fear often overcomes greed. Greed has more powerful divisive element than fear?

  2. Yes, indeed ASEAN will be caught between two elephants’ loving juices. Some are decisive like Vietnam, Thailand and Philippines towards US. Laos, Cambodia towards PRC. The rest want each of their feet on different boat. US and PRC have long economic history with ASEAN. PRC has but that was 600 years ago and might not count. My opinion is if all ASEAN citizens were to choose between US and PRC, the US might be preferred for 1001 reasons.

    Macro reasons being the SCS which PRC claims ALL. Can you imagine that greediness?

    Micro reasons might be the arrogance of PRC tourists which of late deface the pyramids, mannerism of spitting everywhere, loudness and counterfeit goods. Not to mention wheeling dealing PRC women. There are few who gave some comfort of honesty. Their stories are inconsistent. You find these characteristics even among PRC students in Malaysia.

  3. Talking about PRC, chew this.

    25 June 2013
    China’s central bank ready to unveil deposit insurance

    China is likely to introduce the deposit insurance system which has been brewing for nearly 20 years. The central bank released the China Financial Stability Report 2013 on 7 June, saying that a consensus has been reached on the establishment of a deposit insurance system and that the system may be launched and implemented at a suitable time. The report gives no further details or specific timetable. Sources say China will set up an insurance fund and the maximum coverage for each bank account will initially be set at Rmb500,000.

    Bankruptcy regulation for commercial banks slated for end-2013
    With the absence of a deposit insurance system, the state has actually taken on the responsibility to guarantee deposits in banks, which can easily lead to slack risk management and excessive speculation of commercial banks in seeking profits, the central bank report said.
    Apart from reports that a consensus has been reached on the deposit insurance system, sources have also pointed out that a new regulation on bankruptcy of commercial banks may be submitted for review before the end of this year. The industry sees an inter-linkage between the deposit insurance system and the commercial bank bankruptcy regulation.
    The central bank began allowing commercial banks to float interest rates on deposits upwards within a limited range last year. There are reports about the further expansion of the range of interest rates this year. The general opinion of the banking sector is that the establishment of the deposit insurance system is an issue that must be addressed before the liberalisation of interest rates. “Banks still rely on state credit for endorsement at present, but as the market-oriented reform of interest rates gathers momentum, it is possible that commercial banks will go bankrupt. Having insurance companies to guarantee that depositors do not suffer losses is a prevailing trend,” said an industry source.
    Experts say deposit insurance is good for depositors
    In establishing the deposit insurance system, the central bank will first set up a deposit insurance fund and require all banks to pay premiums into it. Maximum coverage for each bank account will initially be set at Rmb500,000.
    According to Huang Zhilong, an expert with the China Center for International Economic Exchanges, the implementation of the deposit insurance system will increase the operating cost of banks as it requires the banking sector to pay premium to deposit-taking companies, but this also means lowering their cost of internal risk control, which is of benefit to depositors.
    Depositors should not jump to conclusion about whether this is good news or not, but the biggest advantage of this system is that after the market-oriented reform of interest rates, depositors will be free to deposit their money in banks that offer higher interest rates.

  4. As I have said it b4, not C4, the World’s Military War machine will create Demand to satisfy their supplies n so it goes. ASEAN will become another Cold War scenario, if anyone bother’s to read what I’ve commented a long time ago, ASEAN will be split in half, pre Cold War days, NATO vs Warsaw Pact, No Oopps!!…No Oouch!!!

  5. Din,
    Lets look at the humour side of this Yes Minister. Come to think of it. ASEAN is lagi worst than EU

  6. The Chinese hegemony overtures are here to stay though the form and substance may vary from country to country. Their claim of the whole China sea as their EEZ is preposterous and very cantankerous. Full marks for the Phillipines to stand up to Chinas military manoeuvres. ASEAN is not a military pact and they don’t have the muscles to to face off China. Some nations are already kow towing toPRC for political and economic gains. Therein lies the logic for power destabilisers and hence the need to lean towards USA and NATO .

  7. Keres,
    My toes are laughing when you say that Pinoyland can stand up to the China. Oh come la! These Pinoys can’t even settle the suluks & not to mention the unfinished business in Mindanao. Padan muka! Who ask these pinoys itchy backside kick out USA from Clark Air Base & Subic Bay Naval Base. What does NATO got to do with South East Asia? Russia is not dead yet. It should be SEATO la dey macha…..Ask Din la…..What next, you wanna ask ANZAC plus some british ship to station in south east asia.

    Guys & Gals,
    China may be extremely assertive but they are definitely not aggressive. I am more worried about Shinto Abe & the Norther Korea maniac than China exercising their historical right in Nansha islands. Just engage China constructively la. with a little bit of respect & decorum. Come on! Indon also show their tantrum over the haze thing. Indon fart ok. China fart cannot. How can

  8. What have I said b4, well here it is, ” Third, there is the trend of a security dilemma within ASEAN. Feeling insecure about threats from other ASEAN countries and from volatile major power commitments to security alliances, Southeast Asian nations have been improving their military capability. Indonesia, for instance, planned to buy more than a dozen Sukhoi fighter jets and already secured contract for 130 Leopard 2 tanks. Thailand, at the same time, increased military spending at 7 percent from the previous year”. Well this is just the beginning, then we have M’sia, as usual, our new Defense Minister will request more budget to acquire more advance weaponary, and a Bloodly excuse to enrich oneself n his boss, don’t believe me, just watch this space in the next LIMA.The world’s Military Industrial Complex will gleefully clap their hands while we choose the cheapest weapon systems but triple the actual cost, ” Lu tolong Gua, Gua tolong Lu “, and saying that, the French will quietly close the Scorpene case, obviously to advance their other weaponary, it’s easier for them and others to deal with despot Regimes than honest ones, what say you Dato Din? Am I right or Am I right ??? …Oouch!!!

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