A House Divided?
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held its regional forum in July, with Phnom Penh, Cambodia as this year's host. For the first time in its 45-year existence, the organization and its 10 member states failed to issue a joint statement. What divides the member states is a growing theme that affects everybody: an emerging US-Chinese rivalry for regional influence. In fact, the lack of unity within ASEAN is quite ironic. Founded in 1967 by Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, ASEAN was a pinnacle of "Third Worldism," solidarity felt amongst many countries wishing to stay neutral in the Cold War and focus instead onnation-building and economic development.
Last month proves that the sense of cooperation has been disrupted, for a new polarity has emerged in Southeast Asia. The key issue of disagreement concerns the continuing territorial dispute in the South China Sea between Beijing and Manila over the Scarborough Shoals. The Philippines, supported by Thailand and Vietnam, accused Chinese fishermen of illegally using the waters and pushed to include the dispute on the agenda of the joint communiqué.
Cambodia, much less supportive of the Philippines in this regard, repeatedly refused, with Foreign Minister Hor Namhong stating, "I have told my colleagues that the meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers is not a court, a place to give a verdict about the dispute."
However, considering Cambodia's increasingly close ties to China, nobody perceives its position as aiming to preserve ASEAN's neutrality. Chinese aid to Cambodia, totaling $10 billion in the last decade, was 10 times greater than that promised by Washington, which holds particular importance given the country's economic woes. Chinese investments have also played a paramount role in economic development through building roads, railways, ports and possible future oil pipelines connecting Cambodia and Laos to southern China.
As a Bangkok Post editorial argues, "current internal ASEAN rifts are attributable not just to China's assertive rise but also to the US' vigorous re-engagement." The Obama administration, while officially neutral, has been publicly supportive of Manila in its row with China by reaffirming the bilateral alliance between the US and the Philippines.
American regional policy extends well beyond the Scarborough Shoal. For 11 days in June, the US and Indonesia conducted joint military exercises, the sixth since 2007. In a visit to Vietnam in the same month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta expressed hope that the US would strengthen ties with its former enemy, with military cooperation being a main pillar.
It is also important to remember that ongoing Chinese-Vietnamese territorial quarrels exist in the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, frequently sparking anti-Beijing sentiments in Hanoi. The South China Sea has displayed bouts of déjà vu as Cold War themes re-emerge. Taiwan, officially the Republic of China and a US ally, has also claimed parts of the Spratly Islands and has announced greater military deployment there. This move does not bode well for cross-straits relations.
These rampant overlapping territorial claims in which both China and the US have involved themselves have become proxy battles as Washington tries to curb what it sees as growing Chinese influence. Perhaps ASEAN's divisions are exaggerated, as it is only Cambodia that has fallen into the Chinese camp. But the real danger that befalls the organization is the dominance of international rivalries over regional interests in political discourse.
The World Needs ASEAN
ASEAN is far too important with too many political and economic issues at stake to break up over US-Chinese rivalry. Politically, splitting ASEAN will undoubtedly diminish its regional clout. Member states have consistently discussed many prominent issues apart from the South China Sea. Tackling the North Korean nuclear program has been a critical topic in recent summits and ASEAN is a forum by which the international community can deal with this problem, with both Washington's and Beijing's cooperation. The ASEAN Regional Forum in which China, the US, Russia, Japan, India and many others take part is another mechanism of promoting wider understanding and cooperation across the Asian continent.
But perhaps ASEAN's biggest asset is that many of its member states share common goals. Asia's economic growth, in light of sluggishness in the US and EU, is not only about China and India. Southeast Asia is experiencing impressive economic growth, as ASEAN's combined GDP already eclipses that of India and could exceed that of Japan by 2028. Indonesia, with the 4th largest population in the world, has the makings of an economic success story. Combined with strong tertiary-based economies, resource abundance and growing international economic integration, Southeast Asia will be a bulwark against an age of worldwide economic stagnation.
Well-functioning institutions are essential for continued economic success in South East Asia. For now, with ethnic and sectarian conflict a problem in almost all ASEAN countries, and lingering hostilities existing between many, what is needed is a lesson in history. Only when ASEAN remembers its original purpose to steer clear of divisive international rivalries and give priority to regional political and economic development will the future of the region be secure.
Justin Lau is Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. He is pursuing his undergraduate degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the United Kingdom where he specializes in the international history of East Asia and the Middle East. This article was first publsihed by the Atlantic Council of Canada.