Thursday, May 15, 2014

Can ASEAN unite for security?



MAY 15

The 24th Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, fortuitously occurred as Vietnam and the Philippines were engaged in maritime disputes with China.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Philippine President Benigno Aquino headed to Myanmar with a central item on their agendas — forging a collective ASEAN voice and course of action to ward off what they see as a darkening Chinese shadow over the entire region.

Nothing can match a heads-of-government-level summit to set the overall priorities of an organisation on strategic existential issues. ASEAN leaders, therefore, had a timely opportunity to define its strategy on the single most pressing problem it faces in the security realm — coping with a politically resurgent and economically indispensable China. This is especially so as Beijing has classified territorial claims in the East and South China Seas as its foreign policy priorities.

However, Vietnam and the Philippines came back empty-handed from Naypyidaw. The summit’s final communique dished out an anodyne note about all parties to the conflict refraining from taking actions that would escalate tension. Expectations in Hanoi and Manila that ASEAN would unequivocally condemn China or that the leaders would together issue a standalone statement on the South China Sea conflict went unfulfilled.


Observers have said host nation Myanmar was subjected to severe Chinese pressure to prevent any anti-Beijing consensus from emerging at the ASEAN Summit.

Although a Myanmar spokesman categorically said “China has not tried to influence us on this issue, there is no pressure on us”, one cannot discount the deep levers of influence that Beijing still wields in this gradually liberalising nation. Hope that Myanmar will jump out of China’s lap and walk independently may be premature. For now, China holds the aces as far as the loyalties and business interests of Myanmar’s military and bureaucratic establishment are concerned.

With Cambodia, China has the strongest mutual understanding among all ASEAN members. Prime Minister Hun Sen is an epitome of political correctness in maintaining that “Cambodia is not goods to be bought by anyone as a sovereign state and as a responsible member of ASEAN”. However, the massive civilian and military aid that Mr Hun Sen receives from China, as well as the anti-Vietnamese nationalism that prevails in Phnom Penh, ensure that Beijing can bank on it to promote Chinese interests inside ASEAN.

In Laos, which has historically been in Vietnam’s ideological sphere of influence, Beijing has assiduously cultivated a pro-China faction among the younger cadres of the ruling People’s Revolutionary Party by generously supplying foreign aid for infrastructure development pegged to natural resource imports.

Even in Vietnam, whose evolution and inclination are to heroically resist Chinese hegemony in South-east Asia, there is a pro-China coterie in its Communist Party that emphasises the pragmatic economic benefits of soft-pedalling the South China Sea dispute.

China’s goal is to fully promote ASEAN as a common market in an economic sense, so that it accrues massive benefits for trade with the 10-member bloc under the ever-widening umbrella of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement. But Beijing wants to scuttle security cooperation in ASEAN that could foster a single bloc in a political sense and stand in China’s way of controlling the Asia-Pacific waterways and sea lanes.

The outcome is that the ASEAN body does not have a single thinking on geopolitical matters, leaving China as the only hub of the wheel around which individual ASEAN countries are like spokes parallel to one another, but variably intermeshed with the central node, i.e. Beijing.


The recent flare-up in Ukraine reveals a striking parallel in which Russia successfully dissected the European Union (EU) by co-opting key members such as Germany through economic diplomacy against anti-Moscow nations such as France and Britain. If the EU, a much more compact role model for regional cooperation, is struggling to define itself as a unified entity on defence and foreign policies, ASEAN’s Tower of Babel on the South China Sea crisis is par for the course.

In the era of capitalist globalisation, regional integration in Europe, South-east Asia and everywhere else is underpinned by liberal economic calculations. The common gain that members of the EU or ASEAN perceive in borderless trade and easy movement of capital across their borders is the main impetus for regionalism.

But seeing beyond the moolah and building collective security regimes are much harder for regional organisations because nation states jealously guard their sovereignty and autonomy on geopolitical problems.

Ceding national security policies to a supranational entity such as an intergovernmental organisation would negate the power of state elites in individual countries and attenuate their ability to remain in charge of their respective national political environments.

To illustrate, one only needs to see how and why China is so crucial for Mr Hun Sen personally and to fulfil his vision of Cambodia. Likewise, non-parties to the South China Sea dispute such as Thailand and Singapore are inclined to see most costs and few benefits if they take up cudgels against China on an issue that does not directly impinge on their specific national security horizons.

[I don't know about Cambodia, but SG in this case, sees the need to engage, contain, and manage China. As a small island-nation-state, we are VERY vulnerable to aggressive larger states and in particular, a resurgent unrestrained China. The fact is that China needs to be guided to fit into the global community, but it will no doubt rebel against any attempt to get her to fit into any regional or global hierarchy. A China Hegemon will fit its desires better. So for SG, we should see and I believe we do see the benefits of engaging and containing or at least restraining China. Not take up cudgels. That is unduly fatalistic.]

Given the divided field, is the quest for a pan-ASEAN security alliance to contain China’s ambitious naval assertiveness a lost cause?

During rare junctures in history, a menacing external foe can transform economics-focused regional organisations into security unions. Members of the European Economic Community (EEC), the predecessor of the EU, managed to coordinate on military and security terms during the Cold War due to the perceived diabolic threat of the spread of communism.

ASEAN too was founded in 1967 as a common security bulwark against communist insurgencies in the region. Once the Cold War ended, though, economics replaced security as the main glue of regionalism.

Should China dramatically raise the tempo in provocative naval actions and try to trample over Vietnam and the Philippines, one cannot rule out ASEAN members overcoming their individualistic security strategies and conjoining in collective defence.

The ball is in China’s court to either maintain the status quo by going easy on its zero-sum-game nationalistic claims or pursuing more brinkmanship that engenders a formidable ASEAN opposition bloc.

Dr Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India

No comments: