US-China summit: ASEAN centrality at risk

US-China summit: ASEAN centrality at risk
PHOTO: Reuters

There are three reasons why ASEAN leaders must pay serious attention to the outcome of the most anticipated state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping and his summit with US President Barack Obama later this month. Their tete-a-tete will have far-reaching repercussions in the region, coming at a time of rising tension between the world's two most powerful nations.

First of all, much is at stake for ASEAN, when the two heavyweight players use the current dispute in the South China Sea to pre-position themselves. Since the end of World War II, the US military might and presence has never been challenged by any power. It has served the region well, providing a conducive environment for human and economic development. However, with China quickly rising as the world's No 2 economy, the US is looking for the most effective ways to respond to this new situation.

By the end of 2011, the US began to rebalance its presence, pushing for stronger economic and military ties with allies, friends and former foes in the Asia-Pacific. The outcomes have been mixed as Washington continues to jump from one international crisis to another.

In the case of the South China Sea dispute, it manages to seize the conflict as a conduit to engage the region and serves as a counterweight, especially one of conflicting parties in a trustful alliance. In his numerous interviews in the Chinese media last week, State Councilor Yang Jiechi stressed that the US was not a direct party to the disputes and hoped that the US "would not get involved as it promised". He suggested that both countries "stay in close touch" despite the differences.

Diplomatically, the two superpowers shared the views that the maritime conflict should be resolved peacefully through negotiation and consultation. They strongly supported the ongoing process to come up with a code of conduct in the South China Sea. However, from strategic perspectives, Washington has taken Beijing to task by criticising China over land reclamations throughout the first half of this year, stating that it has created tension and destabilised the region.

Vice versa, Beijing continues to stress the two-track approach with ASEAN, to which both sides agreed. Meanwhile, China has repeatedly reassured ASEAN leaders that it would not jeopardise freedom of navigation and air-flights in the disputed area, where its major economic lifelines lie.

China hopes Xi's visit will be able to establish the kind of strategic trust that can help ease tensions in the South China Sea as ASEAN and China work on the COC under the coordinating role of Singapore (2015-2018). After the Iran nuclear deal, China wished to expand the co-operation with the US to include other global issues such as the resumption of six-party talks, Ebola pandemics, climate change, cyber security, et al. But whether the two can achieve a modus operandi over the South China Sea, it will depend on how they can balance other core interests.

When US and Chinese leaders are talking, ASEAN must get its house in order to make sure it retains the process and narrative of the South China Sea disputes - it is the only way to strengthen ASEAN centrality.

For the first time, the ASEAN joint communique issued at the end of its 47th annual meeting in early August mentioned "disagreements" among ASEAN ministers - a departure from the past. In previous practices, the ASEAN members would bury their differences under the carpet. Now, some of them prefer to dramatise and wash their dirty linen for all to see. This could be the grouping's Achilles' heel in months to come.

Within the grouping, the Philippines has been the most enthusiastic in inviting the US as a countervailing power while other conflicting ASEAN parties were more discreet. Manila continued to view ASEAN as a paper tiger and wants to push its colleagues for tougher stances and actions.

The latest ASEAN joint communique referring to the maritime dispute was strong and thorough, considering the ASEAN chair's excellent ties with China. As a 'conflicted party' to the South China Sea, Kuala Lumpur has pursued quiet diplomacy with firm positions. As a former comrade in arms, Vietnam has an extra party-to-party-channel to tackle mutual concerns and trust deficits. Hanoi often backs a strong role for ASEAN. And, considering its size, Brunei has enjoyed good co-operation with China over their disputed claims.

Finally, ASEAN must be able to connect with the two countries' core interests and strategic engagements, which have many facets and a broad range of issues.

At this juncture, the South China Sea dispute commands their interest, enabling ASEAN to observe how parties manoeuvre their core interests, which are pivotal to our survival. As such, ASEAN can learn and know exactly when to cosy up - or even the right moment to tap or rub shoulders. Any effort by either power to manipulate regional or potential conflict for hegemonic ambitions must be strongly resisted.

In comparison with other regional groupings, ASEAN has been fortunate to have gone this far without the kind of inertia and squabbling that can keep them hostage. The exception was the Phnom Penh fiasco in 2012, which stunned momentarily the whole organisation.

As Xi and Obama team up for their most crucial talks, ASEAN leaders must send a strong message that they have to follow the ASEAN lead and its code of conduct - as exemplified in the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation - if they want to operate in the region. Their strategic trust must be ASEAN-centred.

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