The South China Sea and ASEAN Unity: A Cambodian Perspective


February 3, 2018

The South China Sea and ASEAN Unity: A Cambodian Perspective

by Cheunboran Chanborey

Mr. Cheunboran Chanborey is currently a PhD student at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University. His main areas of his interest include Cambodia’s foreign policy, East Asian security and international relations.

Prior to pursuing a PhD degree, he worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Cambodia and taught at the Department of International Studies, Royal University of Phnom Penh. Mr. Chanborey holds an MA in Public Management from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, in conjunction of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He also holds an MA in Diplomacy and International Studies from the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies, Rangsit University (Thailand), as well as a BA in International Relations from the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.

https://thcasean.org/read/articles/268/The-South-China-Sea-and-ASEAN-Unity-A-Cambodian-Perspective

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Since 2010, the South China Sea has reemerged as one of Asia’s hotspots due to increasing military tensions between China and other claimant states, especially the Philippines and Vietnam. Diplomatic stalemate between ASEAN and China as well as within ASEAN further exacerbates the uncertainty. The South China Sea has become what The Economist called a “sea of troubles.”1

Clearly, China is being assertive in the disputed areas. Its massive land reclamation, the establishment of new military landing strips, and the deployment of anti-craft missiles are strong evidence for such a judgment. Moreover, despite the absence of major military clashes, China has been assertive in using Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) ships, civilian fishing ships as well as mobile oil explorations to assert and defend its maritime territorial claims.

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China’s growing assertiveness resulted in numerous confrontations with ASEAN claimant states. For instance, confrontation between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal escalated in 2012. In May 2014, China moved a large oil ring into waters near the Paracels, which Vietnam also claims. This resulted in confrontation between Chinese and Vietnamese civilian and military ships. In March 2016, Jakarta-Beijing bilateral relations soured due to alleged encroachments by Chinese fishing boats into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Decoding China’s Assertiveness in the South China Sea

There are many attempts to explain China’s military and diplomatic posture in the South China Sea. Donald Emmerson argues that China’s increasing assertiveness derives from Beijing’s three fears and one megaproject. 2 The three fears include: (1) the repetition of humiliation that China experienced throughout the 19th century by Western powers—Britain, France, and the United States—that arrived in China in ships across the South China Sea, (2) attempts by external powers, the United States in particular, to contain the rise of China to assume its rightful place in the world, and (3) the disaffection of the Chinese over Beijing’s handling of the country’s territorial integrity.

Meanwhile, since becoming China’s new leader in November 2012, President Xi Jinping declared the China Dream as a way to achieve a “rich and powerful country, the revitalization of the nation, and the people’s happiness.”3 The goal is to exert China’s primacy in Asia and the world. To this end, offshore dominance, especially in the South China Sea, may be viewed by Beijing as a requisite step forward toward the goal.

The US Involvement in the South China Sea: Constructive or Divisive?

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Another development that must also be considered while discussing about a more assertive China in the region is the American “pivot to Asia,” which has been seen, at least in the eyes of Chinese strategists, as an attempt by Washington to encircle China.

Controversially, at the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi in 2010, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared publicly that the United States has a national interest in the freedom of navigation and flights in the South China Sea. Since then, military tension has been unabated, and the Philippines and Vietnam have been more assertive both in their bilateral negotiation with China and in using ASEAN as a framework to deal with China. Arguably, Manila and Hanoi might share the same conviction that time is actually on the Chinese side and that it is the right time to push for more compromise from Beijing given the fact that China is not yet a full-fledged superpower and, more importantly, the United States is actively reengaging in Asia. As a result, the South China Sea has always been a hot agenda item in ASEAN meetings and ASEAN-related meetings since 2010.

Although the United States does not exert any claim, it has interests in the South China Sea, which include, but not limited to: (1) freedom of navigation; (2) commitments to its allies in the region, and (3) attempt to prevent regional hegemony.4 To protect its interests in the region, the United States has strengthened its security cooperation with the Philippines, Vietnam, and Singapore. It has also increased joint military exercises with the regional countries and operated maritime patrol aircraft to challenge China’s assertiveness in the disputed area. The US engagement in the South China Sea, in turn, gives ASEAN claimant states leverage in pursuing a firmer stance toward China, which is not supported by ASEAN non-claimant states due to their desire to maintain close ASEAN-China relations. As a result, ASEAN’s division on the issue has been evident.

Hun Sen’s Rebuke Against “Unjust Accusations”

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Inevitably, disagreement within ASEAN on the South China Sea caused a political crisis during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012 as the foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in ASEAN’s history. The failure—known in ASEAN circles as the Phnom Penh Fiasco—has allegedly been interpreted as the result of enormous Chinese pressure on Cambodia: Beijing allegedly blocked any mention of the South China Sea in the joint communiqué.5

More recently, the ASEAN-China Special Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in June 2016 in Yuxi, China was concluded without a joint press conference by the co-chairs of the meeting—China and Singapore, ASEAN-China Coordinator—due to a lack of agreement on the South China Sea. Following the meeting, it has been reported that, under Beijing’s pressure, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar forced the recall of the ASEAN joint press statement by withdrawing their support on the statement, which was to be released separately from the host, China.

Earlier in April 2016, China has reached a four-point consensus with Brunei, Cambodia and Laos that territorial disputes in the South China Sea were “not an issue between China and ASEAN as whole.” Subsequently, Beijing has been accused of dividing ASEAN to preempt any ASEAN consensus on the verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the Philippines’s South China Sea case against China just issued on July 12, 2016.

In defending his country’s position, Prime Minister Hun Sen recently remarked that “Cambodia has again and again become a victim of the South China Sea issue because of unjust accusations.”6 He added that the Phnom Penh Fiasco took place not because of Cambodia. The reason was, as he said, “They bullied Cambodia,” referring to pressure from two ASEAN claimant states—the Philippines and Vietnam—to incorporate their strong wordings in the joint communiqué. He also blamed some ASEAN claimant states for “trying to drag Cambodia into the dispute,” saying that “They have a dispute, but they get Cambodia to be responsible.”

Cambodia’s position on the South China Sea is aimed at: (1) continuing implementing the declaration of conduct (DOC); (2) urging ASEAN and China to make the utmost effort to finalize the code of conduct (COC); and (3) encouraging countries concerned to discuss and resolve their issue because ASEAN is not a court. Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that, “ASEAN cannot measure land for them…the South China Sea is not an issue between ASEAN and China.”

With regard to the PCA’s verdict, Prime Minister Hun Sen has revealed a clear position that Cambodia would “not make any joint declaration to support the decision of the court.” The Philippines has gone too far in unilaterally bringing the South China Sea to the court without seriously anticipating the action’s implications on ASEAN and ASEAN-China relations. Hun Sen made it clear that, “It is the Philippines who sues China. Let the Philippines deal with it. Why call for ASEAN’s support?”

Prime Minister Hun Sen also called upon major powers outside the region to refrain from “pouring the oil into flame and try to keep detente in relations on the South China Sea.” He referred to “one of the major powers outside the region”—widely taken to be the United States—has lobbied ASEAN members to jointly support the PCA’s ruling.

Cambodia Between ASEAN and China

Clearly, the South China Sea constitutes today’s most difficult foreign policy dilemma for Cambodia since ASEAN and China are both crucially important for the kingdom’s security and economic development. Since becoming an ASEAN member in 1999, Phnom Penh has attached a great importance to the integration of Cambodia into the regional grouping. In fact, ASEAN has always been the cornerstone of Cambodian foreign policy. Cambodian policymakers were convinced that ASEAN would be a crucial platform through which their country could safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as promote its strategic and economic interests.

Prime Minister Hun Sen reminded again four main factors encouraging Cambodia to join ASEAN. First, ASEAN’s principle of non-interference would help Cambodia, which is sandwiched by its “two giant ASEAN countries—Thailand and Vietnam,” to address its external security challenges. Secondly, a consensus-based ASEAN would ensure that “Whether the country is rich or poor, big or small, every member has one voice equally.” Thirdly, Cambodia would stand to benefit from ASEAN in terms of “economic construction, socio-economic development and connectivity.” Finally, Cambodia would benefit from ASEAN’s “big diplomatic outreach to partners.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s recall of reasons for Cambodia’s membership in ASEAN can be understood as an expression of doubt in contrast to his past conviction on the role of the regional organization. First, it seems that Hun Sen’s confidence in ASEAN has gradually faded due to the grouping’s ineffective response to the Cambodia-Thailand border conflict between 2008 and 2011. In response to Cambodia’s urge for help, what ASEAN and its member states did was the encouragement for Phnom Penh and Bangkok to bilaterally resolve the dispute. In fact, the border dispute was never tabled as an agenda of the ASEAN Summits until Prime Minister Hun Sen broke protocol, possibly out of his frustration, and raised the issue at the ASEAN Summit in May 2011.

Second, his statement related to the fact that Cambodia has been bullied by some powerful ASEAN members implies his unease at ASEAN’s inability to enforce the principle of non-interference and equal sovereign rights among its member states.

Last but more importantly, China, not ASEAN, has become Cambodia’s largest foreign investor and biggest economic benefactor. China is also the biggest provider of military assistance to Cambodia. Noticeably, China’s military assistance increased remarkably at the time when Cambodia badly needed to build up its defence forces during the Cambodia-Thailand border dispute. Moreover, as for policymakers in Phnom Penh, China is not a threat but a protector of Cambodia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, ensured on many occasions by Chinese top leaders.

In this context, it is important for regional leaders and policymakers to reflect the reality of Southeast Asia and how to move forward. Firstly, it is not unreasonable to agree with a Cambodian scholar, Chheang Vannarith, who argues that, “If the regional and external countries keep pressuring the non-claimant states like Cambodia to build a united front against China, ASEAN will be disintegrated”.7

Secondly, ASEAN-China relationship is not only about the South China Sea. There are many areas of cooperation that both sides stand to benefit from, including trade, investment, tourism, regional connectivity, and joint efforts in fighting against non-traditional security issues.

Thirdly, it is unpractical to consider ASEAN a dispute-settlement mechanism. It has never fulfilled that role even in disputes between its member states. Like Cambodia and Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines tried to initially resolve territorial disputes through bilateral mechanisms but eventually brought the issue to the International Court of Justice. At its best, what ASEAN can do is to be a dispute-avoidance mechanism.

Lastly, there is a dangerous risk of internationalizing the South China Sea, particularly by dragging in external powers. By so doing, ASEAN will lose its neutrality in its relations with major powers outside the region. Moreover, ASEAN’s members might be drawn into great-power competition, which will eventually put ASEAN’s unity at risk, for ASEAN members have different interests in the South China Sea and see the role of external powers through different lenses.

End notes:

1. See The Economist, “The South China Sea: Sea of Troubles”, 2 May 2015. Available at: http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21650122-disputed-sea-growing-security-nightmareand-increasingly-ecological-one-sea-troubles.

2. See Donald Emmerson, “Why Does China Want to Control the South China Sea”, The Diplomat, 24 May 2016. Available at: http://thediplomat.com/2016/05/why-does-china-want-to-control-the-south-china-sea/

3. See William A. Challahan, “The China Dream and the American Dream”, Economic and Political Studies 1(2014):143-160.

4.See Ronald O’Rourke, “Maritime Territorial and Excusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Disputes Involving China: Issues for Congress”, CRS Report, 31 May 2016. Available at: https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R42784.pdf

5. Kishore Mahbubani, “Beijing in the South China Sea – belligerent or assertive?” Financial Times, 15 March 2016. Available at: https://next.ft.com/content/58c676ed-f3f4-32ac-b3c9-69efd0ae07fd

6. See Hun Sen’s Remarks at the Graduation Ceremony of the Royal School of Administration, in Phnom Penh, on 20 June 2016. Available at: http://cnv.org.kh/selected-impromptu-comments-graduation-ceremony-royal-school-administration-unofficial-translation/

7. Khmer Times, “Hun Sen: Enough on South China Sea”, 29 June 2016. Available at: http://www.khmertimeskh.com/news/26635/hun-sen–enough-on-south–china-sea/

 

Chomsky: How the US Is Playing with Fire in Asia


January 18, 2018

Chomsky: How the US Is Playing with Fire in Asia

A shifting balance of power in Asia has the potential for regional conflicts if it’s not managed, warns Chomsky.

Often dubbed one of the world’s most important intellectuals and its leading public dissident, Noam Chomsky was for years among the top 10 most quoted academics on the planet, edged out only by William Shakespeare, Karl Marx, Aristotle.

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An unrelenting critic of U.S. foreign policy since the 1960s, much of his intellectual life has been spent stripping away what he calls America’s “flattering self-image” and the layers of self-justification and propaganda he says it uses to mask its naked pursuit of power and profit around the world.

Now aged 85, Chomsky is still in demand across the world as a public speaker. He maintains a punishing work schedule that requires him to write, lecture and personally answer thousands of emails that flood into his account every week. He is professor emeritus of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, where he has been based for nearly 60 years.

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Chomsky will make a rare trip to Tokyo in March, where he is scheduled to give two lectures at Sophia University. Among the themes he will discuss are conceptions of the common good, one deriving from classical liberalism, the other from neoliberal globalization that he predicts will lead to disaster very soon if not radically modified.

“That gives the answer to the question posed in the title of the talk: ‘Capitalist Democracy and the Prospects for Survival,’ ” he says. “The quick answer is ‘dim.’ ”

Tell us about your connections to Japan.

I’ve been interested in Japan since the 1930s, when I read about Japan’s vicious crimes in Manchuria and China. In the early 1940s, as a young teenager, I was utterly appalled by the racist and jingoist hysteria of the anti-Japanese propaganda. The Germans were evil, but treated with some respect: They were, after all, blond Aryan types, just like our imaginary self-image. Japanese were mere vermin, to be crushed like ants. Enough was reported about the firebombing of cities in Japan to recognize that major war crimes were underway, worse in many ways than the atom bombs.

I heard a story once that you were so appalled by the bombing of Hiroshima and the reaction of Americans that you had to go off and mourn alone . . .

Yes. On August 6, 1945, I was at a summer camp for children when the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was announced over the public address system. Everyone listened, and then at once went on to their next activity: baseball, swimming, et cetera. Not a comment. I was practically speechless with shock, both at the horrifying events and at the null reaction. So what? More Japs incinerated. And since we have the bomb and no one else does, great; we can rule the world and everyone will be happy.

I followed the postwar settlement with considerable disgust as well. I didn’t know then what I do now, of course, but enough information was available to undermine the patriotic fairy tale.

My first trip to Japan was with my wife and children 50 years ago. It was linguistics, purely, though on my own I met with people from Beheiren (Citizen’s League for Peace in Vietnam). I’ve returned a number of times since, always to study linguistics. I was quite struck by the fact that Japan is the only country I visited — and there were many — where talks and interviews focused solely on linguistics and related matters, even while the world was burning.

You arrive in Japan at a possibly defining moment: the government is preparing to launch a major challenge to the nation’s six-decade pacifist stance, arguing that it must be “more flexible” in responding to external threats; relations with China and Korea have turned toxic; and there is even talk of war. Should we be concerned?

We should most definitely be concerned. Instead of abandoning its pacifist stance, Japan should take pride in it as an inspiring model for the world, and should take the lead in upholding the goals of the United Nations “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” The challenges in the region are real, but what is needed is steps toward political accommodation and establishing peaceful relations, not a return to policies that proved disastrous not so long ago.

How in concrete terms, though, can political accommodation be achieved? The historical precedents for the kind of situation we face in Asia — competing nationalisms; a rising undemocratic power with opaque military spending and something to prove in tandem with a declining power, increasingly fearful about what this means — are not good.

There is a real issue, but I think the question should be formulated a bit differently. Chinese military spending is carefully monitored by the United States. It is indeed growing, but it is a small fraction of U.S. expenditures, which are amplified by U.S. allies (China has none). China is indeed seeking to break out of the arc of containment in the Pacific that limits its control over the waters essential to its commerce and open access to the Pacific. That does set up possible conflicts, partly with regional powers that have their own interests, but mainly with the U.S., which of course would never even consider anything remotely comparable for itself and, furthermore, insists upon global control.

Although the U.S. is a “declining power,” and has been since the late 1940s, it still has no remote competitor as a hegemonic power. Its military spending virtually matches the rest of the world combined, and it is far more technologically advanced. No other country could dream of having a network of hundreds of military bases all over the world, nor of carrying out the world’s most expansive campaign of terror — and that is exactly what (President Barack) Obama’s drone assassination campaign is. And the U.S., of course, has a brutal record of aggression and subversion.

These are the essential conditions within which political accommodation should be sought. In concrete terms, China’s interests should be recognized along with those of others in the region. But there is no justification for accepting the domination of a global hegemon.

One of the perceived problems with Japan’s “pacifist” Constitution is that it is so at odds with the facts. Japan operates under the U.S. nuclear umbrella and is host to dozens of bases and thousands of American soldiers. Is that an embodiment of the pacifist ideals of Article 9?

Insofar as Japan’s behavior is inconsistent with the legitimate constitutional ideals, the behavior should be changed — not the ideals.

Are you following the political return of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe? His critics call him an ultranationalist. Supporters say he is merely trying to update Japan’s three outdated charters — education, the 1947 pacifist Constitution and the security treaty with Washington — all products of the U.S. postwar occupation. What’s your view?

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It makes sense for Japan to pursue a more independent role in the world, following Latin America and others in freeing itself from U.S. domination. But it should do so in a manner that is virtually the opposite of Abe’s ultranationalism, a term that seems to me accurate. The pacifist Constitution, in particular, is one legacy of the occupation that should be vigorously defended.

What do you make of comparisons between the rise of Nazi Germany and China? We hear such comparisons frequently from nationalists in Japan, and also recently from Benigno Aquino, the Philippine president. China’s rise is often cited as a reason for Japan to stop pulling in its horns.

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China is a rising power, casting off its “century of humiliation” in a bid to become a force in regional and world affairs. As always, there are negative and sometimes threatening aspects to such a development. But a comparison to Nazi Germany is absurd. We might note that in an international poll released at the end of 2013 on the question which country is “the greatest threat to world peace,” the U.S. was ranked far higher than any other, receiving four times the votes of China. There are quite solid reasons for this judgment, some mentioned earlier. Nevertheless, to compare the U.S. to Nazi Germany would be completely absurd, and a fortiori that holds for China’s far lesser resort to violence, subversion and other forms of intervention.

The comparison between China and Nazi Germany really is hysteria. I wonder whether Japanese readers have even the slightest idea of what the U.S. is doing throughout the world, and has been since it took over Britain’s role of global dominance — and greatly expanded it — after World War II.

Some see the possible emergence of an Asian regionalism building on the dynamic of intertwined trade centered on China, Japan and South Korea but extending throughout Asia. Under what conditions could such an approach trump both U.S. hegemony and nationalism?

It is not just possible, it already exists. China’s recent growth spurt is based very heavily on advanced parts, components, design and other high-tech contributions from the surrounding industrial powers. And the rest of Asia is becoming linked to this system, too. The U.S. is a crucial part of the system — Western Europe, too. The U.S. exports production, including high technology, to China, and imports finished goods, all on an enormous scale. The value added in China remains small, although it will increase as China moves up the technology ladder. These developments, if handled properly, can contribute to the general political accommodation that is imperative if serious conflict is to be avoided.

The recent tension over the Senkaku Islands has raised the threat of military conflict between China and Japan. Most commenters still think war is unlikely, given the enormous consequences and the deep finance and trade links that bind the two economies together. What’s your view?

The confrontations taking place are extremely hazardous. The same is true of China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone in a contested region, and Washington’s immediate violation of it. History has certainly taught us that playing with fire is not a wise course, particularly for states with an awesome capacity to destroy. Small incidents can rapidly escalate, overwhelming economic links.

What’s the U.S. role in all this? It seems clear that Washington does not want to be pulled into a conflict with Beijing. We also understand that the Obama administration is upset at Abe’s views on history, and his visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the linchpin of historical revisionism in Japan. However we can hardly call the U.S. an honest broker . . .

Hardly. The U.S. is surrounding China with military bases, not conversely. U.S. strategic analysts describe a “classic security dilemma” in the region, as the U.S. and China each perceive the other’s stance as a threat to their basic interests. The issue is control of the seas off China’s coasts, not the Caribbean or the waters off California. For the U.S., global control is a “vital interest.”

We might also recall the fate of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama when he followed the will of the large majority of Okinawans, defying Washington. As The New York Times reported, “Apologizing for failing to fulfill a prominent campaign promise, Hatoyama told outraged residents of Okinawa on Sunday that he has decided to relocate an American air base to the north side of the island as originally agreed upon with the United States.” His “capitulation,” as it was correctly described, resulted from strong U.S. pressure.

China is now embroiled in territorial conflicts with Japan and the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea as well as the air defense identification zone on its contested borders. In all of these cases, the U.S. is directly or indirectly involved. Should these be understood as cases of Chinese expansionism?

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People pose with Chinese national flags after landing on Meiji Reef in the South China Sea

China is seeking to expand its regional influence, which conflicts with the traditional U.S. demand to be recognized as the global hegemon, and conflicts as well with local interests of regional powers. The phrase “Chinese expansionism” is accurate, but rather misleading, in the light of overwhelming U.S. global dominance.

It is useful to think back to the early post-World War II period. U.S. global planning took for granted that Asia would be under U.S. control. China’s independence was a serious blow to these intentions. In U.S. discourse, it is called “the loss of China,” and the issue of who was responsible for “the loss of China” became a major domestic issue, including the rise of McCarthyism. The terminology itself is revealing. I can lose my wallet, but I cannot lose yours. The tacit assumption of U.S. discourse is that China was ours by right. One should be cautious about using the phrase “expansionism” without due attention to this hegemonic conception and its ugly history.

On Okinawa, the scene seems set for a major confrontation between the mainland and prefectural governments, which support the construction of a new U.S. military base in Henoko, and the local population, which last month overwhelmingly re-elected an anti-base mayor. Do you have any thoughts on how this will play out?

One can only admire the courage of the people of Nago city and Mayor Inamine Susumu in rejecting the deplorable efforts of the Abe government to coerce them into accepting a military base to which the population was overwhelmingly opposed. And it was no less disgraceful that the central government instantly overrode their democratic decision. What the outcome will be, I cannot predict. It will, however, have considerable import for the fate of democracy and the prospects for peace.

The Abe government is trying to rekindle nuclear power and restart Japan’s idling reactors. Supporters say the cost of keeping those reactors offline is a massive increase in energy costs and use of fossil fuels. Opponents say it is too dangerous . . .

The general question of nuclear power is not a simple one. It is hardly necessary to stress how dangerous it is after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which has far from ended. Continued use of fossil fuels threatens global disaster, and not in the distant future. The sensible course would be to move as quickly as possible to sustainable energy sources, as Germany is now doing. The alternatives are too disastrous to contemplate.

You’ll have followed the work of committed environmentalists such as James Lovelock and George Monbiot, who say nuclear power is the only way to save the planet from cooking. In the short term, that analysis seems to have some merit: One of the immediate consequences of Japan’s nuclear disaster has been a massive expansion in imports of coal, gas and oil. They say there is no way for us to produce enough renewables in time to stop runaway climate change.

As I said, there is some merit in these views. More accurately, there would be if limited and short-term reliance on nuclear energy, with all of its extreme hazards and unsolved problems — like waste disposal — was taken as an opportunity for rapid and extensive development of sustainable energy. That should be the highest priority, and very quickly, because severe threats of environmental catastrophe are not remote.

Noam Chomsky is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent books are Who Rules the World? (Metropolitan Books, 2016) and Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power (Seven Stories Press, 2017). His website is http://www.chomsky.info.

ASEAN needs to move to minilateralism


December 6, 2017

ASEAN needs to move to minilateralism

by Richard Javad Heydarian*

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RSIS Commentary is a platform to provide timely and where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary and analysis of topical and contemporary issues. The authors’ views are their own and do not represent the official position of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU. These commentaries may be reproduced electronically or in print  with prior permission from RSIS and due recognition to the author(s) and RSIS. Please email your feedback to Mr Yang Razali Kassim, Editor RSIS Commentary at RSIS Publications@ntu.edu.sg.

Synopsis

To save the principle of ASEAN centrality, the regional body should transcend its consensus-based decision-making and embrace minilateral arrangements on divisive issues.

For four decades, ASEAN commendably established the foundations of a nascent security community in Southeast Asia, where the threat of war among neighbouring states has teetered on the verge of impossibility. In the past two decades, the regional body has tirelessly sought to create a broadly peaceful, rules-based and inclusive regional security architecture.

The regional body is increasingly suffering from a ‘middle institutional trap’. The type of decision-making arrangements that enabled it to reach its current stage of institutional maturity are insufficient to meet its newer challenges. In particular, the rise of China and its growing assertiveness are not only disturbing the regional security architecture but also undermining ASEAN’s internal cohesion and its quest for centrality in East Asian affairs.

Limitations of ASEAN Way

The ‘ASEAN way’, where consensus and consultation undergird decision-making regimes, is no longer up to the task. The regional body’s unanimity-based decision-making mechanism has unwittingly handed a de facto veto power to weaker links that are under the influence of external powers.

Moving forward, the body has two choices. It can modify its institutional configuration by adopting an ‘ASEAN–X’ or ‘qualified majority’ voting modality on politico-security affairs, or it can fall into irrelevance.

This is poignantly evidenced by the South China Sea disputes. After it failed to embrace wholesale institutional innovation, the only way forward is a constructive form of ‘ASEAN minilateralism’, where like-minded and influential countries in the region coordinate their diplomatic and strategic calculations vis-a-vis South China Sea disputes.

End of ASEAN Centrality?

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In 2016, the leaders of ASEAN displayed encouraging unity — or at least a semblance of it — during the Sunnylands Summit with former US President Barack Obama. At the end of the meeting, the two sides released a joint statement that called for shared ‘commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to threat or use of force, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law and the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea’.

So both sides agreed that not only should the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) be a basis for resolution of disputes, but also mentioned ‘legal processes’, which could be interpreted as an implicit statement of support for the Philippines’ decision to resort to compulsory arbitration against China in accordance with Article 287, Annex VII of UNCLOS.

Both sides also emphasised the necessity of ‘non-militarisation and self-restraint’. This was particularly salient given China’s worrying deployment of surface-to-air missile systems, high-frequency radars and fighter jets to contested land features in the Paracel Islands as well as newly built facilities across artificial islands in the Spratlys.

But as the Philippines’ arbitration case reached its final stages, ASEAN suddenly began to lose steam. Things came to a head during the special foreign ministers meeting between ASEAN and China in Kunming when the Southeast Asian countries failed to release a joint statement, which forced frustrated officials in the Malaysian Foreign Minister’s Office (which initiated the high-level meeting) to release a draft joint statement.

A Minilateralist Solution

It did not take long for some ASEAN countries to shut down any hope of ASEAN centrality on the South China Sea disputes. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen openly criticised the Philippines’ compulsory arbitration against China, dismissing it as a provocative act that is ‘not about laws’ and instead a ‘political conspiracy between some countries and the court’.

More disappointing, when it became clear that the Philippines scored a clean sweep victory against China (with the court nullifying China’s historic rights doctrine and much of its nine-dashed line) most ASEAN countries immediately called for patience and calm rather than compliance by claimant states to a binding decision.

 

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In a strange twist of events, the Philippine government under President Rodrigo Duterte has soft-pedalled on the issue, refusing to raise it in multilateral fora. During its 2017 chairmanship of ASEAN, the Philippines oversaw a joint statement that was ironically even less critical of China than in previous years.

It is highly unlikely that ASEAN will ever find a consensus or adopt a robust statement on South China Sea disputes. The much-vaunted code of conduct (COC) framework looks like a repackaged Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, since dispute settlement mechanisms or any reference to relevant UNCLOS provisions (and Philippine arbitration) are excluded.

COC: New Hope or Mirage?

Looking at the outline of the COC framework, the ‘objectives’ of the document are ‘to establish a rules-based framework containing a set of norms to guide the conduct of parties and promote maritime cooperation in the South China Sea’. The operative term is ‘norms’, which denotes the absence of a legally binding nature. In the section on ‘principles’, this is quite clear: the document states that the final COC will not be ‘an instrument to settle territorial disputes or maritime delimitation issues’.

Key ASEAN countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia can bilaterally and individually release statements that communicate their disappointment with China’s activities in the area and relay their willingness to step up their ‘minilateral’ cooperation in the South China Sea.

ASEAN claimant states can also negotiate a parallel legally binding COC grounded in international law that can then serve as a framework for maritime delimitation. It can be more substantive and maximalist. It should call for an immediate freeze on reclamation activities, construction of military facilities, deployment of military assets and expansive illegal fishing in the area.

If ASEAN cannot embrace this minilateral approach, it runs the risk of complete irrelevance in shaping and managing potentially the most combustible conflict in the 21st century.

*Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based academic, columnist and author who contributed this to RSIS Commentary. The article is partly based on a conference organised by Stratbase-ADR Institute (July 2016), and a joint workshop of the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) of Nanyang Technological  University, Australian National University, and Stanford University at the Asia-Pacific Centre For Security Studies (APCSS) in October 2017.

 

https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/CO17210.pdf

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/12/05/asean-needs-to-move-to-minilateralism/

Trump, Xi and the siren song of nationalism


November 28, 2017

Trump, Xi and the siren song of nationalism

A new generation of world leaders is embracing nationalist themes

by Gideon Rachman@www.ft.com

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I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers. . . or our national anthem.” So said Mike Pence, the US Vice-*resident, after walking out of a football match  — when some players had “taken a knee” during the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner”. The Trump administration’s row with high-profile athletes might seem like an “only in America” moment. But similar arguments about national anthems are taking place in China, India and Europe.

These anthem rows are a symptom of a global ideological struggle between nationalist and internationalists. In the US, China and India, the militant defence of national hymns is justified by the new nationalists as simple, healthy patriotism. But a shrill focus on national anthems also has a disturbing side — since it often goes hand in hand with illiberalism at home, and aggression overseas.

Earlier this month, China’s National People’s Congress passed a law, making “insulting” the country’s national anthem an offence, punishable by up to three years in prison. The move is part of a growing vogue for displays of patriotism in China, as part of what President Xi Jinping calls the “great rejuvenation” of his people. It also reflects rising tensions between the government of mainland China and semi-autonomous Hong Kong. At recent football matches in Hong Kong, the Chinese anthem has been booed by anti-Beijing protesters.

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The Indian version of this dispute was triggered by a supreme court ruling last year, directing that the national anthem be played before any film shown in a public theater. Supporters of the ruling argue that the anthem is an important glue in a multi-religious country that speaks hundreds of languages. Indian liberals worry that it reflects a rise in intolerant nationalism under Prime Minister, Narendra Modi — which is making life tougher for religious minorities and critics of the government. They also point to incidents of vigilantism in which cinema-goers, who failed to rise for the anthem, have been attacked.

A different kind of anthem controversy took place in France, when Emmanuel Macron celebrated his election victory, last May. The background music when the new president strode on stage was not the Marseillaise but Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” — the EU’s anthem. This was a deliberate rebuke to his defeated opponents in the nationalist and anti-EU, National Front.

The fact that Mr Macron and Mr Trump have taken very different positions in the anthem rows is significant. For the US and French presidents are currently the two most important spokesmen for rival visions of international politics.

Image result for Macron and the New France

In his speech at the UN in September, Mr Trump made the case for an international order based around “strong sovereign nations” — a phrase that he used repeatedly. The US president has also often attacked “globalism”, defined by his campaign as — “An economic and political ideology which puts allegiance to international institutions ahead of the nation state.”Ten days after Mr Trump’s speech, Mr Macron offered a very different worldview. In a lecture in Paris, he said that — “We can no longer turn inwards within national borders; this would be a collective disaster.” The French president saw his enemies as “nationalism, identitarianism, protectionism, isolationism.”

It would be easy to assume that Mr Macron’s internationalist message has more global support. But the Trumpian vision also has international adherents — from a network of politicians and intellectuals that can be termed the “nationalist international”.

Mr Trump’s nationalism is fired by a sense that America is in decline and can only recover, by getting tough with the outside world. Mr Xi’s nationalism is fuelled by a sense that China is on the rise, and can finally avenge historic humiliations. Those two rival visions could easily lead to US-China clashes in the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea or at the World Trade Organisation.--Gideon Rachman@www.ft.com

In a recent article , Eric Li, a Shanghai-based commentator, argued that Xi’s China and Trump’s America, “have more in common than it appears”. Both leaders emphasise national sovereignty and are intent on pushing back against an “overly aggressive, one-size fits all universal order”. Mr Li argues that Mr Xi and Mr Trump have many potential soulmates in the anti-globalist camp — including leaders such as Vladimir Putin in Russia, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Mr Modi and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt, as well as Britain’s Brexiters. It is quite a list — underlining the extent to which nationalism is resurgent. The new nationalists argue that “strong sovereign nations” should be the basis of a stable, international order that rolls backs the excesses of a utopian and elitist “globalism”.

But there is something a little naive about the idea of peaceful coexistence between nationalists. Strongmen leaders may have a shared contempt for international bureaucrats and human-rights lawyers. But nationalism is often associated with disdain for the views and interests of foreigners. So, sooner or later, rival nationalisms are liable to come into conflict — and that is particularly the case with the US and China.

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The New China 7 Leadership

Mr Trump’s nationalism is fired by a sense that America is in decline and can only recover, by getting tough with the outside world. Mr Xi’s nationalism is fuelled by a sense that China is on the rise, and can finally avenge historic humiliations. Those two rival visions could easily lead to US-China clashes in the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea or at the World Trade Organisation.

In his Sorbonne speech, Mr Macron warned that rising nationalism could “destroy the peace we so blissfully enjoy”. Sadly, it seems unlikely that anybody in Washington or Beijing was paying much attention.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

A South China Sea Code of Conduct: Is Real Progress Possible?


November 24, 2017

A South China Sea Code of Conduct: Is Real Progress Possible?

Image result for code of conduct for south china seaThe COC was never meant to solve the sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea.

 

At the recently concluded 31st ASEAN Summit Meetings in Manila, the leaders of ASEAN and China formally announced the start of negotiations on the fine print of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. The agreement comes just three months after the foreign ministers from both sides endorsed the framework on the COC earlier in August.

Recent progress made on the COC is seen by many as a milestone development, in light of the aggressive brinkmanship in the lead-up to the arbitral tribunal ruling in July 2016. Tension certainly appears to have calmed down significantly since, and discussions for the COC have been actively on-going since the meeting of the 19th ASEAN-China Joint Working Group on Implementation of the Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea in February. Compared with the history of strenuous negotiations, the relatively fast pace of recent developments does appear encouraging.

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Land reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. AP File Photo

However, with the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) yet to be fully implemented more than a decade after its adoption, one can’t help but wonder how much real progress is achievable with the upcoming negotiations. How different would the COC be from the DOC? Is this another tactic by China to buy time? How united would ASEAN be in negotiating its position vis-à-vis China?

The concept for a COC first emerged in the 1990s, but disagreements over whether it should be a legally binding document appeared soon after. In particular, China was strongly against any form of legally binding agreement, which would restrict its activities in the South China Sea. ASEAN and China agreed on the non-binding DOC in 2002 as a compromise and interim agreement with the goal to work “towards the eventual attainment of [the COC].”  Little substantial progress has been made since then.

COC Unlikely to Be Significantly Different From the DOC

So, just how significant is the agreement in Manila? Despite the undeniable diplomatic advancement, the hard truth is that the possibility for any real progress toward an effective and comprehensive agreement remains elusive. ASEAN claimant countries together with the United States hoping for a legally binding final COC are almost certain to face disappointment. China has on various occasions stated its preference for a voluntary, non-binding, or at least non legally binding COC. There also seem to be changing sentiments on this point within some ASEAN countries, notably the Philippines. In an interview in May this year, newly appointed Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano expressed wariness toward a legally binding COC, saying that he prefers the COC to first be a non-legally binding “gentleman’s agreement” among claimant countries. He stressed that the COC should be binding, just not legally binding.

At this point it appears that COC will likely be heavily based on the provisions already in the current DOC. This means an exclusion of any provisions for enforcement mechanisms in cases of violation. While the exclusion is understandable due to practical considerations including financial concerns, as with the lack of enforcement clauses in most ASEAN agreements, the effectiveness of the final COC would be highly compromised.

China’s Strategic Calculations

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. Manila, the Philippines, August 6, 2017. (Aaron Favila/Associated Press). China is calling the shots on the South China Sea. It is never going to stop its island-building and militarization activities, despite agreeing to negotiate on the COC.

https://theglobalobservatory.org/2017/08/south-china-sea-code-of-conduct-asean/

China’s agreement to restart negotiations for the COC should be viewed with a pinch of salt. The timing of Beijing’s decision to re-engage is in fact very telling. The July 2016 arbitration ruling and Beijing’s refusal to abide by it had eroded China’s image as a good neighbor to its smaller ASEAN counterparts — an image that Beijing worked so hard to instill since the policy of good neighborliness was introduced by then-President Jiang Zemin in the 1990s. It also called into question China’s self-proclaimed commitment to the rules-based international order, and the pronounced benign intentions behind Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Apparent progress on the COC made this year can thus be viewed as Beijing’s attempt to calm discontent and suspicion in the region. Since the arbitration ruling, Beijing has been active in trying to rebuild its image in the region. Not long after the July 2016 ruling, Beijing announced the end of a fishing blockade around the disputed Scarborough Shoal, granting access to Filipino fisherman. By going back to the negotiating table, Beijing is extending an olive branch to its ASEAN neighbors.

Beijing’s extension of goodwill, however, is seen by many observers as a delaying tactic. It is of no doubt that China is never going to stop its island-building and militarization activities, despite agreeing to negotiate on the COC. The veil of cooperation and mutual trust created by re-starting COC negotiations will in fact buy China time to complete its ambitions in the South China without constant harsh criticism from ASEAN.

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Acceding to ASEAN’s long time request for COC negotiations will also help keep at bay any unwanted U.S. interference in the region. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made it clear in an interview in August that any substantive negotiations on the COC can only occur in the absence of outside disturbances, clearly alluding to moves by the United States. Despite President Donald Trump’s offer to mediate the conflict in Vietnam, it is unlikely that any ASEAN country would want to undermine the goodwill offered by Beijing by bringing Washington into the COC negotiations.

ASEAN’s Pivot to China

Progress made in the COC must be seen as part of Beijing’s charm offensive since the July 2016 ruling. Beijing’s extension of olive branches toward individual ASEAN countries has been more than successful. Since coming into power, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has opted to shelve the arbitration ruling, which almost entirely found in his country’s favor, in exchange for stronger economic cooperation with China. The decision was immediately rewarded with huge tangible benefit in terms of trade deals amounting to $13.5 billion during Duterte’s visit to China in October 2016.

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Prime Minister Najib Razak shakes hands with China’s Premier Li Keqiang: China is buying up strategic assets in Malaysia.

Duterte’s visit triggered a domino effect across Southeast Asia. Malaysia has also shown signs of leaning closer to China, as both sides agreed on the flagship East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project aimed at linking Port Klang to Kuantan Port. In his recent visit to Vietnam, Xi offered his Vietnamese counterpart 12 cooperation pacts across wide ranging areas, in addition to the $1.94 billion worth of deals signed before Xi’s trip. At the same meeting, both countries reached a consensus on peacefully handling their maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

China’s economic might is a fact every country in Southeast has to come to terms with. There are huge economic benefits to be reaped from the Belt and Road and ASEAN countries cannot risk being left out. Beijing knows this well and is a master of pitting ASEAN countries against one another.  Singapore was the only ASEAN state to openly call for China to respect the tribunal ruling, and this was faced with strong backlash from China. Some analysts have argued that China’s decision to invest in Malaysia’s ECRL project is a strategic consideration, as the railway linking the east to west coast of peninsula Malaysia will slash 30 hours of travel time for cargo shipping through the Port of Singapore. The ECRL, together with Chinese investments in a deep-sea port in Malaysia are cause for concerns for Singapore, a country highly dependent on sea-borne trade for its economic prosperity. Other “stick” measures from China include the detention of Singapore’s Terrex vehicles in Hong Kong and the non-invitation of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to the inaugural Belt and Road Summit.

What Can a Limited COC Achieve?

Although Singapore continues to maintain its position on respect for international law and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, it has nonetheless been less vocal on the issue in recent months. With growing economic dependency on China among ASEAN countries, it is not difficult to image a situation similar to the 2012 ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia repeating itself in upcoming negotiations for the COC.

China is in a position to use its economic prowess to pressure for provisions beneficial to Beijing, as well as divide ASEAN on key issues such as whether the COC should be legally binding. Ultimately, it is likely that the final COC would be based off a lowest common denominator, meaning it is unlikely to make any real progress in halting Chinese advancements in the South China Sea.

That being said, the COC was never meant to solve the sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea. Although it also seems unlikely that it will help freeze Chinese island building in wake of any settlement, a COC is still useful as a confidence-building mechanism to help improve trust and mutual understanding to help facilitate cooperation.

In addition, it might also work as a crisis-management and prevention mechanism in the region. According to Ian Storey, senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, the COC is likely to include new provisions for the prevention and management of incidents at sea. If true, the COC could join the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) in making the South China Sea safer for all seafarers.

Lee YingHui is Senior Analyst with the Maritime Security Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

 

Singapore’s Foreign Policy at a juncture


November 9, 2017

Singapore’s Foreign Policy at a juncture

by  Ja Ian Chong, National University of Singapore

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

Image result for vivian balakrishnanCall on Myanmar State Counsellor, Union Minister in the President’s Office and Union Minister for Foreign Affairs Daw Aung San Suu Kyi by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan on 18 May 2016 during his introductory visit to Myanmar [Photo: MFA]

 

In July 2017, a rare public debate occurred within Singapore’s foreign policy establishment. In contention was whether the city-state should defer to major powers or insist on pursuing its longstanding foreign policy principles.

 

This discussion came against a backdrop of China’s new willingness to assert its foreign policy preferences, apparent fissures within ASEAN as well as US capriciousness. Such developments have the potential to shake longstanding pillars of Singapore’s external relations. The debate reflects unease about shifts in East Asian politics and uncertainty over how best to respond.

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Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong with President Xi Jinping of China–Engaging China while tilting towards the United States

Engaging China — especially in terms of economics — while encouraging comprehensive US engagement in Asia are integral to Singapore’s longstanding approach of ‘not choosing sides’ between Beijing and Washington. This policy assumes significant overlap in US and Chinese interests, shared major power desire for self-restraint and mutual accommodation and US commitment to the liberal international order it created after World War II. Recent developments seem to cast doubt on these long-held presumptions. In fact, the 2017 Qatar Crisis that sparked the debate stemmed partially from US disinterest and ambivalence.

Singapore is especially discomforted by China’s reclamation and arming of artificial islands in the South China Sea despite widespread opposition, and Beijing’s non-participation in and lambasting of the Philippines-initiated arbitration tribunal process. Beijing was also exceptionally harsh in criticising Singapore over the latter’s insistence on the rule of law in relation to maritime issues and the arbitration tribunal. The detention in Hong Kong of Singaporean armoured vehicles en route from Taiwan and the apparent exclusion of the Singapore Prime Minister from Beijing’s Belt and Road Forum further heightened Singaporean concerns.

One of Donald Trump’s first moves as US President was to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Other major trade arrangements hang in the balance as the US administration threatens punitive action against trade partners. The rashness with which President Trump seems to treat North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons could also destabilise the region. Potential US global retreat is similarly disconcerting despite reports that the Trump administration dropped calls to make security commitments contingent on payment from allies and partners. Such actions detract from efforts by US officials to assure East Asia of active and consistent US engagement.

Behaviour by Beijing and Washington endangers another important pillar of Singapore’s foreign policy: its preference for international law, institutions and norms. Such mechanisms give smaller states a degree of formal equality with major powers, since all actors are technically restrained by the same rules, requirements, and procedures. Notably, participants in the July 2017 debate agreed on Singapore’s need for institutions such as the United Nations and ASEAN as well as international law to be robust. They differed on how strongly to advance such arrangements.

Beijing’s rejection, mobilisation against and dismissal of the South China Sea arbitration tribunal process along with its expansive maritime claims and broad interpretation of exclusive economic zone rights suggests a desire to adjust internationals laws in fact if not in form. China’s ability to break ASEAN consensus on positions Beijing deems inimical to its interests and Washington’s new suspicion of multilateral institutions — seen in the TPP withdrawal and its criticism of the UN — portend greater pressure on key institutions.

Some ASEAN members seem ready to accede to China on the promise of economic gain, even as Washington appears to be turning into an increasingly unreliable institutional partner. Then there is worry about major powers eroding sovereign autonomy by intervening domestically through business, academia and other sectors. Prevailing laws, institutions and norms are familiar to Singapore and it has historically excelled in working with them to its own benefit. Shifts on these fronts — which Singapore cannot influence — are cause for anxiety.

The debate abated with a reiteration of longstanding principles by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan without new policies or strategic directions. Such trepidation is unsurprising given the many complex variables currently at play. Circumstances surrounding China’s rise and the United States’ relative decline are unprecedented for Singapore, and the country is on the cusp of a generational leadership transition. ASEAN is no longer the same conservative, anti-communist Cold War club, where member interests were relatively predictable and consensus was easier to develop. Climate change, long-term economic sustainability, and terrorism too present serious challenges.

Singapore is not alone in trying to find its foreign policy footing — the July debate parallels ongoing discussions in Australia, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere about how to reposition strategic priorities. Singapore may ultimately wish to re-examine how best to pursue its enduring interests in maintaining freedom of action, economic openness and the containment of tensions given the evolving external environment.

Possible considerations range from reducing reliance on ASEAN in favour of other partnerships to investing in far-reaching ASEAN reform, perhaps at some expense to autonomy. Contemplating such change, particularly in public, may be uncomfortable for Singapore’s foreign policy traditionalists, but it is necessary for charting the city-state’s future in an increasingly uncertain world and hence deserving of sustained and open discussion.

Ja Ian Chong is Associate Professor of Political Science at National University of Singapore.