Beijing's placement of a giant state-owned oil rig inside the disputed waters of the South China Sea on May 2 demonstrates without any doubt the willingness of an emerging global power to use force to settle an international dispute. The use of paramilitary forces from both sides poses very serious challenges to the fundamental principles that have underlined peace in the region for several decades. ASEAN members should therefore consider formulating a collective response.
In 1968 the founders of ASEAN observed the conduct of international relations, in particular Confrontasi and the Vietnam War, and identified three problems.
They were: regional countries were locked in territorial and political disputes;
global powers were using South-east Asian countries as proxies in their struggle for superiority, and differences were being settled with the use of force. In Southeast Asia these problems were impeding national development and reducing national strength and resilience.
As a result, the ASEAN founders decided that three principles would be essential to the peace and security of the region.
First, member states would not attempt to undermine the governments of other members. That ASEAN members are now largely comfortable with each other demonstrates the extent to which this principle has been maintained.
Second, member states would respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each other. Disputes would be settled through the use of diplomacy and other non-violent means. If no consensus emerged, they would postpone decisions, rather than take unilateral action to change the status quo.
Without such principles, it would always have been tempting for larger countries to ignore the interests of smaller ones. Adherence to these principles has ensured that members have not gone to war with each other.
Third, the great powers must be engaged with care to ensure that their involvement benefits the region as a whole. Great power interference has the potential to wreak havoc. On the other hand, their absence could create a vacuum that might tempt a single great power to try to dominate the region.
ASEAN policy has therefore been to welcome all the great powers, inviting them to play a role in the security and development of the region. They are also asked to commit themselves to the principles of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), which lays out the three principles outlined above. This allows ASEAN countries as a group to take the lead in regional affairs through the use of diplomacy, a process known as ASEAN Centrality.
During the post-Cold War years, ASEAN leveraged on its Centrality by creating institutions such as annual dialogues and other cooperative mechanisms. There have also been attempts to create new international institutions based on the wider region of East Asia, but with ASEAN taking the lead.
These efforts were all made in the hope that through cooperation and respect, the various players would have more to gain from peace than from being at odds with one another.
These attempts to create a durable order of peace and security in the South-east Asia region are likely to be undone now with the rapid escalation of tensions in the South China Sea.