Time for Asean to stand up to China

This year is going to be yet another one that will define Asean as it continues on a path of strong economic growth partially driven by the expansion of larger neighbours such as China and India.

Asean is now headed by a new secretary general — Le Luong Minh, who was previously the vice foreign affairs minister in Vietnam. As he takes the helm from Thailand’s Surin Pitsuwan who headed the organisation for five years, Mr Minh will help steer the 10-country group toward long-awaited integration at the end of 2015.

Taking the chairmanship of the 10-country group this year is Brunei, amid hopes that some of the diplomatic embarrassments of 2012 during the chairmanship of Cambodia can be laid to rest.

China, a prime mover behind the economic miracle we have been witnessing in Southeast Asia over the past few years, is also emerging as one of the biggest threats to the region. While portraying itself as “big brother”, and insisting that its financial generosity to the likes of Cambodia comes with no strings attached, Beijing spent last year acting more like the schoolyard bully.

When Asean failed to adopt a joint communiqué calling for resolution of competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, most people concluded that Beijing, through its proxy Cambodia, had intimidated Asean into inaction.

However, the truth is messier and more complicated. The problem is that in addition to having disputes with China, many of the countries involved in the South China Sea also have disputes with each other. In recent conversations with senior officials of various countries that are not backing unilateral action by Asean against China’s claims, I was told that Asean was simply remaining faithful to its long-held policy not to interfere in territorial disputes between countries.

“Imagine if this policy was reversed and implemented in the case of Thailand and its dispute with Cambodia, or other disputes in the region,” was the reply I got when I raised the issue.

But then this is not a single country’s dispute with the goliath of Asia; as many as half of the Asean members are involved and those not affected continue to feel as though it is not their duty to help their peers in need.

Non-involvement in territorial disputes between Asean members is something that is understandable, but a territorial dispute with a country that is both economically and militarily much more powerful than all the nations in Asia combined is nothing but suicidal for the region.

The weakness of the chair, headed by Cambodia, was one reason the collective voice of the region against the moves by China was not heard last year. This year Brunei, one of the countries that actively disputes China’s claims in the potentially oil-rich waters, is in the chair and that could help push things in positive direction.

Having Le Luong Minh as secretary-general, also from another claimant country, is likely to make things a lot better as well, as the secretary-general could help garner enough support to push for some action against the aggressive actions displayed by China.

This year China is bound to test its limits further as it aims to get its way, and as long as Asean remains divided, big brother is likely to get most of what it wants.

What Asean needs to do is to get off its high horse and look at the issues that matter to a majority of the member countries and take collective action that can send a signal to the world that we are acting in concert. Being united only when it comes to economic issues has proved highly beneficial, but is Asean is divided when it comes to political or territorial issues, then divided we fall.

Growth and integration of any region in the world is never dependent only on economic factors, which form only a small part of the overall picture. Having a collective voice also gives the bullies of the region a reason to stop and think before they open their mouths.

Knowing full well that Asean would be divided on the South China Sea issue and that only about half of the countries in the group would be affected was probably a factor in the calculations that China may have made before it laid claims to the area.

Therefore it may just be about time that the new blood in Asean starts to push things so that the smaller countries affected by dubious maritime and island claims are not taken advantage of. Because if China gets its way today, it certainly will come back for more in the near future. If and when that happens, it may come back to haunt the countries that today are standing on the fence and watching the show.