Big powers back Asean-led security plan

Big powers back Asean-led security plan
Flags of the ten ASEAN nations displayed at the Prime Minister's Office in Bandar Seri Bangawan, Brunei.

It has taken several years for ASEAN and its dialogue partners to come up with good security design that would place the regional interests of all parties at heart. Quite a few security and strategic frameworks were considered but the ASEAN leaders were unhappy with them.

They detected among major powers a desire to influence the region in ways that could endanger their future stability. Worse, their ideas would put ASEAN at odds with the contesting powers, especially the US and China.

The US-centric security approach has been with the region for well over half a century. It was a time-tested security guarantor in the region. Now the US power is being challenged by the rise of new powers both in Asia and elsewhere. It no longer has the same outreach and power that it used to enjoy.

In the past three years, the US has set forth a newly balanced policy that has strengthened its presence in the Asia-Pacific, especially among its alliances. Washington has subsequently boosted security ties with Vietnam, its former foe. Meanwhile, it also has sought a closer economic link-up with the region through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the high premium free trade arrangement among 12 members including Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.

At the same time, China is rising so rapidly that it is shocking the socks off everyone - a new phenomenon for the region used to only an American presence built up over five decades. Since 1991 when China attended the ASEAN meeting in Kuala Lumpur for the first time, ASEAN has been learning distinctive new ways to engage China in all avenues of co-operation, particularly the dispute in the South China Sea.

However, Beijing's policy and action on land reclamations in the South China Sea in recent months has raised concerns within ASEAN and increased urgency for an earlier conclusion to a code of conduct on the waterway. China has just agreed to work on a second list of commonalities that would form the basis of a draft framework. It would be the key agenda for the next Joint Work Group on July 1-2.

Beyond the South China Sea, China has also proposed economic schemes that would essentially strengthen the connectivity with both mainland and archipelagic ASEAN and the rest of West Asia and Europe, through land and maritime routes. "One Belt, One Road" and the "21st Maritime Silk Road" are the two major paths China is pursuing. To accomplish these objectives China needs a friendly, peaceful and stable environment without any disruption. Disharmony in ASEAN-China relations would render negative impacts.

In 2013 China and Russia put forward to ASEAN a separate proposal on collective security - Russia's Framework Principles for Security and Development Cooperation in Asia and the Pacific and China's Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendship. The two proposals were considered by ASEAN as they shared many similarities with the regional and international codes of conduct enshrined in the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation - as well as UN documents that resonate well with the ASEAN norms and values.

Obviously, Beijing and Moscow are eager to shape the emerging regional architecture here - the only region in the world that still has a comprehensive security framework. Last May, China had already advocated the concept of Asia for Asian security.

China and Russia shared the same view that the region needed a new security structure to ensure peace and security. President Xi Jinping has for the past two years been urging major powers and neighbours to seek foreign policy innovations to avoid conflict and build peace.

There is no secret that they have a common aim to mitigate what they perceive as US dominance in the region. That helps explain why the key objective for their new security framework is to weaken the alliance system the US established after the end of World War II.

At the ASEAN Regional Forum's senior officials meeting in Kuching, it was clear from the fierce discussion and contest between the major powers, ASEAN had to take up leadership and boost its centrality. In his annual report to the ASEAN leaders in April, Secretary-General Le Luong Minh stressed that the grouping needed to do things to beef up its centrality - to intensify its internal community building and integration processes, strengthen internal unity, cohesiveness and common positions on regional and international issues.

These must-do lists were in line with the paper submitted by Thailand, titled "ASEAN Centrality and Strategic Approach to the Future Regional Architecture", endorsed by the ASEAN foreign min?isters at the 26th ASEAN Summit. The paper also suggested concrete follow-up action plans that the ASEAN members must do to shore up the group's creditability.

For instance, on issues related to regional flashpoints such the Korean Peninsula, the East Sea, the South China Sea, the strategy called for practical initiatives from the grouping. In the case of the South China Sea, ASEAN must have "a unit?ed position and propose ideas to maintain momentum on consultations regarding the drafting of code of conduct".

In the upcoming working group meeting with China on the maritime dispute, all ASEAN members must work hard to expedite the second list of commonalities, which would serve as the basis for the drafting of a code of conduct in the South China Sea. Singapore would take over the Thai coordinating role for ASEAN-China relations beginning August.

In the past, the dialogue partners often chastised ASEAN that its centrality must be earned with tangible action. However, in the new strategic environment, the role of ASEAN is much needed as the current acceptable balancing wheel between the old and rising powers.

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