Malaysia dealt a tough hand as ASEAN chair

Malaysia dealt a tough hand as ASEAN chair

Its national carrier's loss of two aircraft under questionable circumstances and its clumsy, seemingly disingenuous public handling of the first incident raised doubts that Malaysia was ready for prime time.

However, for better or worse, Malaysia is the ASEAN chair for this year, and it will certainly have a challenging agenda full of political opportunities and risks - for ASEAN and for its own international reputation.

This is the year that ASEAN is supposed to achieve full integration as an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). As underscored by Datuk Muhammad Shahrul Ikram Yaakob, director-general of the ASEAN-Malaysia National Secretariat: "Malaysia has immense responsibility in ensuring the implementation of the remaining action lines of the blueprints of all three pillars - political-security, economic and socio-cultural - as well as how best to conclude the road map for an ASEAN community."

While there may be face- saving declarations of the AEC's "arrival", the reality is that there is a lot more to do to bridge critical political and economic gaps within ASEAN. As ASEAN chair, Malaysia will be held at least partially responsible for doing so - or failing to do so.

Perhaps more important will be Malaysia's management of ASEAN-China relations regarding the South China Sea and the maintenance of ASEAN centrality in the security of the region.

While a robust ASEAN-China Code of Conduct remains ASEAN's diplomatic holy grail, it is unlikely to be achieved this year - or in the foreseeable future. That would be a difficult task for any country, but it will be particularly difficult for Malaysia because it is a prime player in the South China Sea imbroglio.

Malaysia has overlapping claims on the South China Sea with fellow ASEAN members Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as with China.

While it has not been as publicly outspoken and assertive as the Philippines and Vietnam in defending its claims against China's statements and actions, it has made its concerns known to China through diplomatic channels.

Moreover, it has enhanced its political and defence ties with the United States. It has joined the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative, which China opposes. Further, Malaysia is allowing the US to use its territory for the refuelling of its Poseidon submarine surveillance planes.

These planes are likely searching for and tracking Chinese submarines in the South China Sea - acts that China may well consider to be unfriendly.

Malaysia's stance on the formal Philippine complaint against China has drawn public praise from senior US officials. The US National Security Council senior director for Asian affairs Evan Medeiros said Malaysia has "come out in support of the principle of international arbitration, which has been a subject of some diplomatic wrangling".

The US clearly sees Malaysia as a supporter of its ally the Philippines' position vis a vis China, and a friend in its attempt to maintain dominance in the region. China would probably prefer Malaysia to be more neutral.

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