Assertive Asean more vital than ever

Assertive Asean more vital than ever

While Myanmar's "unusual crisis" dominated talks at the summits of Asean and its dialogue partners last week, the group's centrality and relevance in the new world order were also highlighted as the 10-country bloc has been dealing with critical challenges both at home and abroad.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has notched up significant achievements in recent decades -- among them significant economic growth, building a globally connected economic community and cementing its place at the heart of Indo-Pacific economic and security cooperation.

But this year has seen a perfect storm with the rapid spread of the Delta coronavirus variant causing thousands of deaths, plunging many more people into poverty and slowing an already uneven economic recovery.

The Feb 1 military coup in Myanmar compounded the misery, triggering street demonstrations and violent crackdowns by the junta. It has sorely tested Asean's cherished principle of non-interference and engagement, leading to a failure by the group to reverse the fallout so far.

Geopolitical tensions, meanwhile, are on the rise with the US stepping up efforts to curb the growing influence of China, which controls most of the South China Sea. Beijing has also turned up military and political pressure on fiercely democratic Taiwan, the island China considers its own.

Reiterating America's "rock-solid" commitment to Taiwan, President Joe Biden expressed concern about coercive actions by China that "threaten regional peace and stability".

Beijing responded by urging Washington "not to send the wrong signals to the forces of Taiwan independence to avoid seriously harming Sino-US ties and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait".

Adding to the drama has been the formation of Aukus, a three-way security alliance involving the US, Britain and Australia. Some Asean members fear it could herald an arms race and worsen tensions, given that the deal will give Australia nuclear submarine technology.

Also making its presence felt is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad. This informal partnership of the US, Japan, India and Australia is increasingly positioning itself as a bulwark against Chinese aggression.

All of the above have put Asean at the centre of a white-hot contest for power and influence. For years, the region has carefully nurtured the idea of its "centrality" to economic, political and security cooperation in the broader Indo-Pacific. In doing so, it has hoped to influence the actions of major powers.

Now, many fear Asean centrality could be largely illusory as the group risks being forced to pick a side in any future conflict.

At the summit last Tuesday, Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob acknowledged that that leaders were unable to agree on a unified stance. He said it was "regrettable" that they failed to respond officially to the formation of Aukus.

Indeed, the chairman's statement did not include the term "Aukus", settling for the usual bland assurance of "the importance of strengthening Asean centrality [and] unity in our engagement with Asean's external partners".

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said the group "must collectively raise clear and coordinated voices" on Asean centrality. He noted that the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific -- the official regional vision -- is the best tool to encourage major powers to engage constructively.

President Biden reassured Asean leaders that the bloc is "essential to the regional architecture of the Indo-Pacific", and that Washington "strongly supports" Asean's Indo-Pacific vision.

After four years of no-shows by Donald Trump, Mr Biden's virtual participation was a welcome development. Washington announced plans to provide over US$100 million to Asean for various purposes such as combating Covid and tackling climate change.

Also joining the virtual summit, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said upholding peace, stability, freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea was in everyone's interest. "The South China Sea is our common home."

Yet for all the high-minded talk, Asean risks losing its relevance because it was never built to manage major-power competition, and it is unreasonable to expect it to do so. The best the group might hope for is productive coexistence with the giants.

I join those who are optimistic that Southeast Asia will keep asserting its right to call on the US and China to manage their competition responsibly. To engage with the region, they should do so on our merits, rather than insisting that events be viewed purely through their eyes.

Nareerat Wiriyapong

Acting Asia Focus Editor

Acting Asia Focus Editor

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