Asean must take central role to ensure peace, security

FOLLOWING the crucial Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling on the South China Sea (SCS) conflict that went against China, by all right, in favour of the Philippines, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) should take a new role to cement unity among its members.

This new role should centre on regional peace and security.

It should bring the association of southeast Asian nations to decide whether it will remain divided, or it will strive to find a common voice to fend off the up and coming heightened military activities in the SCS.

Asean does not have a military or security force, but the member countries should think how to set aside differences and deal with the crisis.

Yet, Asean can step up efforts to unite its members to find a common voice in bringing more security to the region.

Asean already have a central role in deciding its economic future. It has already decided on frameworks that will boost its member states economic activities, as well as national development, and these were decided after years of fruitful talks.

Asean has also initiated a major step for its future integration as a unified economic, business and investment entity with the creation and launching of the Asean Economic Community (AEC).

But the association is still facing setbacks, due to the rise of a form of nationalisation among its member states. Former leaders of the association, now retired, sees this rise in nationalism as a setback that will hurt future prospects for integration.

Yet, it is clear that Asean will not be able to achieve much on security issues if the countries that are members of the grouping do not think like one entity in facing these challenges.

The introduction of the report from the ‘Asean Eminent Persons Group’ or EPG to the Asean stated the following: They said although Asean is one of the most successful regional organisations today, there is no guarantee that it will continue to be relevant in the coming decades and remain the driving force in regional cooperation.

While the Asean Charter will bring about a long overdue legal framework, Asean must reposition itself.

It must address the growing challenges and opportunities of regional integration, the major shifts in the Asian landscape brought about by the rise of China and India and Asia’s widening links with the rest of the world.

The EPG said the Asean Charter should be updated so that the Asean’s principles and objectives would be aligned with the new realities confronting the association, and these changes should be done in order to strengthen regional solidarity and resilience.

One of the recommendations of the EPG was the promotion of Asean’s timely and effective responses to non-traditional and transboundary challenges and crises through mutual assistance or regional and
international cooperation.

Asean may need to calibrate the traditional policy of non-intervention in areas where the common interest dictates closer cooperation, they said.

But this is yet to be considered, due to heavy resistance from various governments who sees their national borders as the only borders worth defending and protecting due to the issue of rising nationalism in the region.

In order to move away from nationalism, and focus on regional integration and regional security and peace, the Asean member states should stop thinking within their borders alone.

They should think more of unity among them, for a common voice to face the competition from super powers in the SCS and within the Asean itself.

It is clear that foreign powers want to divide the Asean with economic benefits, or military benefits, to the countries in the region, with the sole aim pulling them apart.

China, for example, is using its economic clout to attempt a divisive move within the Asean. It has promised to invest billions of US dollars in the region in a bid to gain the support of some of the member countries. With this support, Beijing believes it can thus control some of the governments within the Asean and bring them to accept its bold moves in the SCS in particular.

For the United States, it is its military clout that it is pushing through to the member states, offering them aid and support against China’s influence in the SCS.

Both superpowers want to create a pull factor in their favour, one that would drag some members of Asean to gyrate towards them, and abandon the spirit of unity within the Asean.

If they are successful — with Asean closing an eye and allowing them to continue in their efforts to divide the grouping — it may end up destroying Asean.

Henceforth, Asean should consider the Hague ruling as a confirmation of the SCS as a common security issue for the entire region, a situation that will require Asean to unite and find a permanent resolution to the problem of division created by super powers. To address this issue, all Asean members must be involved in the process of conflict resolution.

According to Wall Street Journal, shipping companies have long worried that escalating tensions in the SCS could affect global commerce.

This also must be addressed immediately by the Asean.

China has rejected the verdict, accusing the tribunal that ruled on the SCS conflict as biased and promising an increase in the conflict in the SCS, even warning of war if foreign — albeit local — forces encroach the Chinese military in the disputed seas.

We all know that any disruption the shipping lanes, and of the trading routes in the SCS, could be damaging to the globe. It could also put energy supplies in danger.

The potential for conflict may arise if the governments within the region interpret the ruling as a legal basis to expand fishing operations or oil-and-gas exploration in the waters where China has asserted control, said WSJ.

Thousands of ships transit the waters daily, connecting markets and goods in East Asia to the Middle East and Europe. Total annual trade through the SCS amounts to US$5.3 trillion (RM21.5 trillion), with US trade accounting for US$1.2 trillion (RM4.8 trillion).

A third of the world’s liquefied natural gas passes through the Straits of Malacca and into the South China Sea, much of it bound for Japan and South Korea, said WSJ.

Nevertheless, the 49th Asean Foreign Ministers in Laos this month should call on the Asean leaders to strengthen unity among the association of 10 member states in Southeast Asia.

It should also call on the Asean to have a common voice with regards the SCS conflict, especially after the PCA ruling.

For more articles on Asean or the South China Sea conflict, please visit aseanstratfor.com

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