Karim Raslan: Crunch Time for Asean
Amidst an increasingly gloomy global economic outlook one region stands out — Southeast Asia.
Buoyed by rapidly expanding domestic demand and sustained by a natural resources boom, the 10 countries sandwiched between China, India and Australia are experiencing steady growth — notwithstanding a few hiccups, such as rising trade deficits and unpredictable currency fluctuations.
However, there’s a fly — or rather two of them — in the anointment. Southeast Asia’s long overlooked and ignored regional grouping, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has become the target of high-level lobbying from both American and Chinese officials.
Indeed, last week in Phnom Penh at the Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, the new “Great Game,” this time a constant tussle for pre-eminence and advantage between Washington and Beijing, came to a head as the two sides wrestled almost without care for their nominal hosts.
Such was the intensity, fury and doggedness of the two forces that Asean, in an unprecedented move, failed to issue a joint communique at the conclusion of the meeting. The main point of contention was of course the South China Sea. The issues at hand are complex and stark, with overlapping territorial claims, historical grudges and energy politics all jumbled up.
China claims most of the South China Sea as its own. Unfortunately, China’s territorial pretensions clash with separate claims by Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, including over the Spratly Islands with its rich natural resources. The South China Sea is said to have as much as 213 billion barrels of oil and two quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves.
China, not surprisingly, has always been quick to assert its claims to the region, including clashing with Vietnam in 1974 over the Paracel Islands. The People’s Republic came dangerously close to repeating the fracas with the Philippines earlier this year when vessels from their navies engaged in a tense standoff near the Scarborough Shoal.
An emboldened and more Asia-focused United States, has weighed in to support its former colony. Troop deployments in Australia and improved relations with Myanmar and Vietnam, two of China’s neighbors, have created a potentially explosive mix.
In many ways, though, Asean’s indecisiveness is perhaps unsurprising. It’s a sign that there’s really little holding the nations together. The sad fact is that we’ve all been pulling our separate ways and now we’re living with the consequences.
Cambodia’s reluctance to endorse a joint communique at the meeting reflected its reliance on China for development. Vietnam and the Philippines, too, must balance their historical antipathy toward China. Malaysia and Singapore must tread carefully in their dealings with China due to the delicate ethnic balance of their countries. Indonesia, for its part, while nominally not a direct claimant in the dispute, also probably sees the deadlock as a chance for it to demonstrate its Southeast Asian leadership credentials. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has directed Foreign Minister Marty Natelgawa to tour Asean in a final quest for a compromise.
The South China Sea dispute represents a historic opportunity for Southeast Asia. Our leaders are now confronted with a choice: they can either come together and live up to Asean’s promise as a means to keep the countries in the region from being pawns of great powers, or again fall victim to the age-old tactic of divide and conquer.
All the plaudits about regional integration will ring hollow if Southeast Asia cannot speak with one voice and stand up for itself. But maybe this is too idealistic. Perhaps the saying attributed to Lord Palmerston is true: “Nations have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies. Only permanent interests.” But whatever the case, the South China Sea is a make-or-break situation for Asean.
Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Indonesia and Malaysia.