ASEAN faces its most complex regional security challenge since its formation, at a time when the United States and China are groping towards a new balance in their relationship, veteran Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan said yesterday.
The 10-nation bloc should remain neutral amid overlapping American, Chinese and Japanese interests in the region, he told the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies' (Iseas) Regional Outlook Forum.
But anxiety perpetrated by actions of major powers has given rise to uncertainty which will test ASEAN's ability to cope, said Mr Kausikan, a policy adviser and ambassador-at-large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In a 45-minute keynote speech, he was critical of a myth subscribed to by the US that its brand of democracy is universal, and the failure by China to understand how its words and actions can evoke distrust. While leaders on both sides have said the region is big enough for both, the actions of some officials have sometimes suggested otherwise, he noted.
"Singapore, for example, has on occasion been accused by American friends of being too close to China and by Chinese friends of being too close to America," he said. "Japanese friends have been discreet in keeping their thoughts to themselves."
ASEAN members are pulled in different directions, he added. Japan and the US are supplying patrol craft to some claimants to territories in the South China Sea like the Philippines and Vietnam; many also have burgeoning trade and investment ties with China.
But it is not in the major powers' interests to make ASEAN take sides, said Mr Kausikan. "The US, China and Japan are all substantial powers. All of them will remain substantial for the foreseeable future, and none of them can be ignored."
Already, differing political ideologies and history have bred strategic distrust among the three countries, he added.
For one thing, he said, the US views China's rise as "psychologically disquieting" because the Chinese brand of capitalism is flourishing without its liberal democracy. Meanwhile, China regards US attitudes towards universality with grave suspicion as intending to undermine its rule.
But China needs to rein in its tendency towards "triumphalist and at times xenophobic nationalism", which Mr Kausikan said is seen in how it has "demonised Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, accusing him of revising history".
"I doubt it really works and in fact is counter-productive. Most of East Asia has long ago decided to look forwards and not backwards in their relations with Japan."
Against this challenging backdrop, ASEAN's economic integration project is crucial, he said. Members have pledged to form an ASEAN Community by end-2015.
But Mr Kausikan said continuing integration will take sustained political will. "Economic nationalism is on the rise in key members, notably in Indonesia. Other members have already displayed buyer's remorse over even the current modest level of commitments," he added.
Economics is strategy, he said. "Without economic integration, the centrifugal forces generated by China's growth will at least loosen, and may well destroy, the nascent development of a South-east Asian identity erected on ASEAN."
This article was first published on January 9, 2015.
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