Asean's difficult balancing act
The annual meeting of foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Nations in Bangkok last week drew attention from all over the world. The presence of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, among others, indicated the importance of Asean as a growing focus of major-power competition.
More importantly, the meetings -- Asean's largest event in terms of participating countries -- took place as China continues to flex its muscles in Southeast Asia and beyond. Vietnam and the Philippines complain that Beijing has become even more aggressive in asserting its claims to vast swaths of the South China Sea -- a move the US called "bullying behaviour".
As well, a deepening dispute between South Korea and Japan and the violent unrest in Hong Kong are raising concerns about stability in the region. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and his South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha clashed on Friday, with Ms Kang condemning Tokyo's latest export controls as "unilateral and arbitrary".
US-China friction is also escalating after President Donald Trump announced on Thursday that he would hit China with punitive tariffs on another US$300 billion in goods starting from Sept 1. In Bangkok, Mr Pompeo hit out at Chinese "coercion" in disputes over the South China Sea and dam-building on the Mekong River.
Tension is also rising in the Taiwan Strait, with a new Chinese defence white paper describing Taiwan, along with Tibetan and Turkistan separatists, as threats. The report also lashed out at Washington for its close ties with Taipei and its plans to sell more weapons to the island, and reiterated Beijing's willingness to use force to "resolutely defeat anyone attempting to separate Taiwan from China".
Moreover, China's tourism ministry last Wednesday announced the suspension of individual travel permits to Taiwan "due to current cross-strait relations". The ban could hurt the island's economy as China accounts for almost one third of overseas visitors to the island. Spending by foreign tourists accounted for about 2.2% of GDP in 2017, the last year for which data is available.
All those developments suggest that ongoing tensions in Asia have become more worrisome. Thus, it puts pressure on Asean governments, in particular Thailand as the chair of Asean, to calm situations flaring up across the region. The 10-country bloc seems to be under unusual stress in the face of a two-superpower showdown; the traditional comfort of having China and an economic partner and the US as a security partner is no longer valid.
Amid China's military buildup in disputed waters, Mr Pompeo's presence at the Bangkok meetings clearly indicated his goal to reassure Asian allies that the US remains a key player in the region. He was careful to stress that Washington is not asking any Asian nation to take sides, but it will be tough for the bloc to maintain a balance between the two superpowers.
China should understand that rising tensions in the South China Sea will only undermine its other initiatives in Southeast Asia, and strained relations with Asean countries will contribute to the growth of other major powers' strategic influence. Most Asean states are certainly not interested in pursuing a confrontational approach toward China and are willing to give Beijing's call for stability and improvement of bilateral ties a try.
In the first half of this year, Asean overtook the US to become China's second-largest trading partner, with a value of 1.98 trillion yuan ($288 billion). China also claimed that the Beijing-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a proposed free trade agreement between the 10 Asean states and six other key trading partners, has been making "positive progress" toward finalising the world's largest FTA by the end of 2019.
There are fears that Asean might not be up to the challenge. In a world of rising instability and unpredictability, the importance of regional cooperation and order is growing. As a regional bloc, it is important that Asean states strongly assert their willingness to act as an honest broker to help China and the US narrow their differences.
They can do this by persuading China to be more transparent about its South China Sea strategy in order to restore some calm in the area where four out its 10 members -- Brunei, Malaysia the Philippines and Vietnam -- are involved. Such effective diplomacy amid the resurgence of geopolitical strife, nonetheless, needs strong leadership rather than the divisions among member states we are seeing at the moment.
Acting Asia Focus Editor
Acting Asia Focus Editor