Asean could end up fractured if member nations fail to find a balance in their relations with the United States and China, an expert on Asian relations says.
Asean members' recent dealings with the US and China could be seen as putting national interests ahead of regional interests, Prapat Thepchatree, associate professor of international relations at Thammasat University (TU), said.
Members of Asean tend to flip-flop in their support of China and the US depending on which nation wants backing at the time, he told the 4th TU-Asean Forum yesterday.
Asean should find a better balance between the two major powers, he said. Maritime disputes in the region are simmering and Asean can help build stability, Mr Prapat, who is director of TU's Asean Studies Centre, said.
China is among six countries which claim ownership of parts of the South China Sea. The others are Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines.
Meanwhile, the US has been reasserting its power in the region and has been calling on countries in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, to join the Trans Pacific Partnership, a US-led free trade and investment pact currently being negotiated.
The TPP could split Asean, Mr Prapat said. Four Asean countries have joined the free trade pact and Thailand is eager to do so. However, five members have decided not to take part.
Foreign Ministry permanent secretary Sihasak Phuangketkaew said China plays an important role in economic development. But the US can help stabilise the region, he added.
"I believe the two countries' competitiveness will not be the same as during the Cold War era," Mr Sihasak said.
China and the US could work together on expanding the region's economy. A strong Asean could help liaise between the two rivals, he said.
Asean, however, must show it can be a leader on security issues in the region, especially over the territorial dispute in the South China Sea, he said.
Thailand should tell China that if it is unwilling to change its stance on the South China Sea, it could harm relations with Asean, Mr Sihasak said.
Cambodia is siding with Beijing over the maritime dispute because Phnom Penh hopes to secure Chinese investment, former foreign minister Kasit Piromya said.
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Writer: Achara Ashayagachat & Thanida Tansubhapol