April 25, 2015
Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The ASEAN Non-Alignment Option
by John Teo@www.nst.com.my
AS the annual ASEAN Summit opens in Kuala Lumpur this weekend, there is a certain sense of foreboding about where the world is headed and ASEAN — which is often described as the most successful regional grouping in the developing world — along with it. This comes on the heels of the commemorative Afro-Asian Summit that Indonesia just hosted. It is a throw-back to the era of Sukarno, when the country’s first President fancied his country (and himself) a leading light of the emerging “Third” World.
A newly democratising Indonesia must now look towards the future. And, that future surely means ASEAN retaining its centrality in the wider region, with Indonesia as its natural “first among equals”, propelling ASEAN’s economic dynamism to a higher plane, so it remains the fulcrum through which critical regional issues are coursed.
ASEAN must zealously safeguard its position as a critical region in an increasingly critical part of the world, where the interests of rising and existing global superpowers may soon intersect. Nobody now questions the rise of China, and while whether the United States is on a trajectory towards absolute decline is still debated on, there is also no question that China’s rise has already meant the relative decline of US global influence. It is absolutely crucial that ASEAN plays right this coming contest for regional and, indeed, global influence between China and the US.
The two global giants seem determined to make everyone else choose, so there will likely be no easy middle path that traditionally is how ASEAN saves its own skin to live another day. It has been successful till now by taking this default position and it seems still a good position going forward, if ASEAN can negotiate the tricky tightrope. The eye-watering sums in the region of US$50 billion (RM181 billion) that China has just announced it will channel to strategic, but violence-wracked Pakistan are a foretaste of China’s increasingly unbeatable economic sway worldwide.
How much more will China be prepared to commit to an equally, if not more strategic, Southeast Asia right in its own backyard? But, if China is increasingly able and willing to buy its way into the hearts of countries the world over, will an increasingly wary and, perhaps, even insecure US — unable to match Chinese economic diplomacy — seek to throw a spanner in the works instead?
China is not gaining itself unalloyed favours with its newly expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea that overlap those of several ASEAN states, including Malaysia’s, and backing up those claims with building activities that create new facts in the disputed sea. In so doing, China may have already succeeded in driving a wedge into the very heart of ASEAN, making its maritime territorial contests a diplomatic minefield that every succeeding ASEAN chairman must delicately negotiate at each summit meeting.
ASEAN will do itself no favours either if it falls one way or the other for the equally delicate dance for influence that the US and China are performing and trying to get ASEAN, or bits of it, to join in lock-step. Ironically, diplomatic non-alignment — the by-product of Afro-Asian solidarity — may have fallen by the wayside with the end of the Cold War, but its spirit may yet prove rather useful now for ASEAN in the opposing offensives that both China and the US deploy to gain friends. Seeking cover under “international” rules and norms may be a safe default position for ASEAN under normal circumstances, but we cannot be under any illusion that global rules are written by powerful nations, usually after victories in wars. The US flouts such rules when it suited the country — even when those rules were largely written at its behest — so rules apply to lesser countries and not necessarily the powerful ones, such as China.
Huge White, the Australian strategic thinker, arguing for the US to “share power” in the region with China in his book, The China Choice, writes that China has willingly accepted US primacy in this region “for as long as Beijing believes that it works for China, and no longer”. He further argues that as China’s rise reaches a tipping point, preserving US regional primacy becomes increasingly untenable. Until and unless such Sino-American strategic “rebalancing” happens, ASEAN’s best policy should remain with its time-tested hedging. Thus, while high-principled clarity out of this latest ASEAN Summit on dealings with the major powers may make its unsurprising appearance, the muddied waters of the South China Sea may not become clearer soon.
The writer is a Kuching-based journalist
Read More : http://www.nst.com.my/node/81554