50 years on, the South China Sea stands between Asean and ‘one community’

Cary Huang says many Asean members are caught between ‘China opportunities’ and the ‘China threat’, as they walk a tightrope between security ally US and an assertive Beijing, with disputes in the South China Sea threatening regional stability

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 August, 2017, 11:57am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 August, 2017, 7:26pm

China and Asean have set a good example on regional economic integration to bring about mutual benefit.

But the deeper economic engagement between China and its smaller neighbours does not automatically translate into trust and friendship. Instead, mutual suspicion is on the rise, due to conflicting geopolitical interests amid rising US-China rivalry over domination of regional affairs.

The China-Asean Free Trade Area took effect in 2010. As of 2016, China had been Asean’s biggest trading partner for eight consecutive years, while the bloc ranked as China’s third-largest trading partner for six years in a row. Two-way trade totalled ­US$452.2 billion last year, with combined two-way investment crossing US$183 billion this May.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations was founded on August 8, 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, and later expanded to include Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. It was hoped that grouping 10 nations, with a total area of 4.46 million sq km and a population of nearly 600 million, would help them stand up to the major world powers. However, the bloc has a long way to go in its efforts to play a crucial role in the maintenance of regional stability and security, amid escalating territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and Asean members Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei, as well as Taiwan.

Why China and the US cannot afford to ignore Asean

Many Southeast Asian nations are deeply influenced by the history, traditional culture and values of China, as they were once Chinese “protectorates” or “tributary states”. Now they are still caught between “China opportunities” and the “China threat” as Beijing leverages its rising economic clout, military power and traditional diplomacy to reassert its historical domination in the region. Beijing has pushed its territorial claims across the South and East China seas, while trying to preserve stability and diplomatic goodwill to preserve regional trade and investment networks.

The bigger challenge for the group is the rising friction between China and the US, as Washington shifts its strategic focus to the region in an effort to contain China’s rise and assertiveness.

Amid such a complex environment, Asean has been walking a tightrope in balancing China and the US-led West.

That is, trying to promote economic integration with China to benefit from its phenomenal growth, while relying on the US for security protection.

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The ruling by an international tribunal at The Hague last year, in favour of the Philippines and against China’s claims to most of the South China Sea, resulted in a deep divide within the bloc, as members could not agree on a united stance against their powerful neighbour. The ruling does not help solve the dispute but complicates it as, while it is said to be “final and binding”, it lacks a mechanism of enforcement.

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The dispute will continue to be a major source of differences among Asean member states, and a major focus of diplomatic spats between China and its neighbours.

While it has made significant progress in regional integration through creating the Asean Political-Security Community, Asean Economic Community and Asean Socio-Cultural Community, the group has yet to gain credibility at the international level as an effective regional organisation.

As it celebrates its 50th anniversary next Tuesday, Asean has not yet accomplished its mission of achieving “one vision, one identity and one community”, in the face of the increasingly complex geopolitical, strategic and security situation in the region.

Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post