Lim Jock Hoi, the Bruneian Secretary General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, lamented in a recent article that Asean is at a crossroads, faced with global headwinds and internal fissures, risking remaining relevant in a fragmented world. He is right to worry. There are forces at work within Asean that may undermine or usurp the twin principles of consensus and non-interference in domestic affairs. These two principles which have kept Asean together since its founding in 1967 are beginning to thin out.
The ongoing political crisis in Myanmar, for example, points to deeper malaise. The miliary junta, which usurped power from an elected civilian government almost two years ago, remains at odds with Asean, which has been nudging the regime to re-embrace peace and restore public order. Buoyed by recent support from Russia, China and India which abstained from voting at last week’s Security Council’s meeting demanding an end to violence and the release of all political prisoners, Myanmar will continue to defy the earlier Asean’s Five-Point consensus.
The Myanmar’s junta’s decision not to release Aung San Suu Ky is unfortunate. Instead of freedom, she has been jailed for seven more years. Many view this turn of event as a travesty of justice. All in, the former leader will serve a total of 33 years in prison at the hands of the military. Unless something drastic happens to the military junta, at age 77 she is certain to die in prison.
Cambodia and Laos are pushing for more independent foreign policies which, at times, are at odds with Asean too, especially on how to manage relations with China. In 2012, for example, Cambodia held the Asean Foreign Ministers to ransom when Phnom Penh refused to give in to pressure from other member states to condemn China in a proposed joint statement. Many in Asean worry both states will revert to becoming China’s satellites.
Manila’s relations with Beijing are currently under review as China becomes more assertive with its territorial claims in the disputed part of the South China Sea. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. last week met in Beijing with President Xi Jinping to discuss bilateral economic relations including trade, tourism and investment. The two presidents reportedly discussed the fragile situation in the South China Sea. Early last week, just before Marcos visited Beijing, for example, Manila expressed its deep concern with China’s new reclamation activities around several unoccupied features at Eldad Reef, Lankiam Cay, Whitsun Reef and Sandy Cay in the Spratlys.
The Chinese Embassy at Manila denied the report of land reclamation off Eldad and Lankiam as another piece of American propaganda to stir up troubles in the South China Sea. Incidentally, Whitsun Reef is the site of an earlier incident that sparked diplomatic protest from the Philippines, in March 2021. According to sources familiar with the incident, more than 200 “fishing boats” (read maritime militia) were massing around the Reef. Downplaying the incident, Beijing claimed their “fishermen” were at Whitsun sheltering from stormy weather!
Manila walks a tight rope. How to deal with an assertive China? Could President Marcos revisit the decision of the International Tribunal in 2016 which favoured Manila? The Tribunal found the PRC's expansive maritime claims in South China Sea vide the nine-dash-line, including the seven artificial islands as unlawful.
Beijing has since converted these artificial islands into military fortresses. Many military analysts believe, without a 24/7 air cover and anti-missile missiles systems, these fortresses are sitting ducks! Personally, I do not believe these fortresses were built to scare the Yankees. Rather, they were built to deter and intimidate other smaller forces in the region.
Questions like how to manage the rivalry between the US and China from spilling into military conflict engulfing the region are critical to Asean’s security. While the Asean leaders have promised they would not take sides, some member states will find it difficult to resist pressures from the US. These external issues are impinging on Asean’s internal cohesion. If not handled properly, the US-China rivalry could wreck Asean’s unity.
While Asean member states would benefit from China’s recent economic reopening from its Covid-19 lockdown, the geopolitical headwinds resulting from the US-China rivalry are likely to undermine regional security. Recent developments (more money for the military, more troops to the region, more weapons to Taiwan, Korea and Japan including various policies to blunt China’s advantage in semiconductor industry plus others) seem to suggest that Washington is dead serious in containing China to maintain its supremacy. According to some reports, the US military is pushing for a military showdown with the PLA.
The PLA is not taking lightly either the military threat from the US and its allies and is preparing for a possible military showdown when push comes to shove. How Asean navigates the waters of the South China Sea will determine its diplomatic agility and political resilience, the hallmarks of its centrality.
Similarly, how Asean deals with the fallout from the war in Ukraine will have an impact on the treaty organization’s cohesiveness. There are forces at work pulling members away from coming together as different member states view their relations with Europe, Russia and the US that are historically at odd with each other’s national interests.