Australia's security lies in Asean ties
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Australia's security lies in Asean ties

Sitting as far from its European roots as possible, perched on the southeast tip of Southeast Asia, Australia has for so long searched for security from this region. Now it needs to, and is, seeking security in the region.

The key to that security is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). And as our great hope Asean needs to look within itself to ensure the region's security.

In today's world the choppy waters of traditional security threats, like territorial disputes in the South China Sea, are once again lapping against the peaceful shores upon which we have stood for so long.

What seems like a squabble over a few rocks, could see the region in a very hard place.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea not only directly impact many of Asean's member countries — Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines — but have taken on a much deeper complexion with the rising power of one claimant, China.

Beijing's magic marker nine-dash line, which it has used to carve out a stake in a sea rich in resources, also has the potential to touch Indonesia and Jakarta's interests. And Indonesia is only a hop, skip and a jump from Australia.

The disputes over the South China Sea are not new, but the dynamics have changed significantly as China has become more powerful and more assertive and as the Philippines and Vietnam (with US and Japanese encouragement) in particular have sought to push back.

China in its dispute with Vietnam has cleverly resorted to the use of white and red painted vessels, using water cannons to intimidate and deter, and ramming and even sinking fishing vessels as a way to assert their power and authority — yet without triggering an armed, war-like response. This is a shrewd technique intended to avoid a concerted and coordinated response from the affected Asean countries, let alone the United States.

Yet the implications of sitting back and watching while this transpires need to be thought through. Do the countries of Asean, really want the association to be sidelined and effectively marginalised as a regional forum for security matters? Does Asean really want to comply with the proposal for bilateral resolution of disputes only? Have the ramifications of this approach been taken into account?

Pundits in Australia certainly see the merits in Asean speaking with one voice and Australia has acted consistently to bolster the association's ability and resolve to act cohesively and coherently. The United States and the Philippines have re-invigorated their mutual security alliance and Japan has offered tangible assistance to the Philippines, Vietnam and others in the region to counter the growing pressure.

But there are limits to what Japan and the United States, or Australia for that matter, can do when it comes to the direct concerns of the Asean states — and China knows this well, consistently acting below the threshold that would trigger or warrant external intervention on the side of one of the Asean claimant states.

A key reason for this reluctance for countries like the United States to get directly involved is that the claims remain contested and not settled before international courts of arbitration. China's insistence on bilateral rather than multilateral dispute resolution has also had the effect of sidelining Asean. The question remains — do the countries of Asean care enough about Asean solidarity. This is particularly a question for those non-claimant states in Asean that do not perceive they have a stake in the disputes.

For a resolution to be reached that suits the interests of Asean, non-claimant states of Asean need to be prepared to lend support to their claimant counterparts. That support would entail collaborating on finding a way to resolve the disputes between each other and then presenting a united front in discussions.

This is not to say that China does not have a legitimate claim or that China should be locked out. That simply is not going to happen. But China, I would argue, is more likely to be accommodating of compromise arrangements with Asean countries if Asean can agree and speak unitedly in proposing a resolution to the intensifying disputes.

For its part, Australia has a vested interest in seeing Asean emerge as a more capable and more robust institution that can work effectively and collaboratively in the interests of the whole. The stakes are very clear. Australia is an island nation dependent on sea-based trade for its prosperity. Australia's maritime trade routes are its lifeblood and an enormous proportion of this trade transits into and through the South China Sea. Australia has a stake in the peaceful resolution of disputes in this region.

For Australia, the term "Indo-Pacific" has come into use more so than the term "Asia-Pacific" in recent times. In part this is in recognition of the increased significance of India and the Indian Ocean to Australia's and the region's security and prosperity. After all, the vast majority of trade transits this region as the virtual maritime "Silk Road" connecting Europe, Asia, Africa, Australasia and the Americas. The term also encompasses the growing significance for all states in the region of a peaceful rise of India and China in particular.

A significant part of this re-conception of the region as being the Indo-Pacific is the centrality of Southeast Asia — as a virtual fulcrum for the region. It already is the choke point for much east-west and north-south trade. Southeast Asia is seen by Australia as the heart of the Indo-Pacific region — sitting at the crossroads between East Asia and South Asia and immediately to Australia's north.

Australia has an enduring vested interest in the peaceful resolution of disputes and effective building of trade and economic links to tie the region more closely together as an integrated regional economically, wherein Australia plays a contributing role alongside the nations of Asean and other regional powers in bolstering security and stability.

The time to choose has come. Asean needs to back itself and its members, and Australia needs to back Asean.

John Blaxland PhD is a researcher based in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University's College of Asia and the Pacific.

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