ASEAN challenged by Indo-Pacific strategy

Source:Global Times Published: 2018/7/19 11:03:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Editor's Note:

Changing geopolitical landscape in the Asia-Pacific has put the regional security architecture in the spotlight. From the rebalance strategy adopted by former US president Barack Obama to the Indo-Pacific concept recently initiated by President Donald Trump, how should ASEAN cope with the changes and challenges? Four scholars from ASEAN member countries shared their opinion at a panel discussion during the Seventh World Peace Forum organized by Tsinghua University.

Wilfrido Villacorta, Professor Emeritus, De La Salle University, the Philippines

The security architecture in our part of the world has been extensively transformed. There are reactions from big, medium and small powers. ASEAN hasn't actively proposed a security architecture other than what we proposed a few years after its formation. The Philippines, one of the five founding members of ASEAN, had a US military base at the time. Now, neither the Philippines nor Thailand has a US military base.

ASEAN is inevitably influenced by the dynamics between its 10 members on the one hand, and relations among major powers which are also dialogue partners of the organization, particularly between China and the US, and Japan and China, on the other. Some of these big powers such as Japan, the US and Australia want to replace the name Asia-Pacific with Indo-Pacific. It's a self-serving idea that will promote their interests. Admittedly, that is meant to contain China, which they fear is advancing too quickly. That's why they have replaced Asia-Pacific with Indo-Pacific. Where did Asia go? They don't care. They are afraid China is seemingly dominating.

Djauhari Oratmangun, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Embassy of Indonesia

China launched the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) and now there is the concept of Indo-Pacific. How should we respond? From Indonesia's perspective, because of the changing geopolitical landscape, it is important to respond to the transformation. To avoid the possibility of conflict or instability or proxy war, we need to form the habit of dialogue in ASEAN. Even though there are problems, we come together and solve them with the help of talks. I do remember back in January 2011, we solved disputes with Thailand and Cambodia by holding talks in Jakarta for two days. Because of the dialogue, we didn't need to go to the UNSC.

That's why we have decided that leaders meet twice a year so that they can talk and sort out issues. We need peaceful, prosperous and inclusive cooperation in the Indo-Pacific with the principle of openness, inclusiveness, transparency, and respect for international law. ASEAN's centrality is what is important.

Le Hai Binh, vice president, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam

We have discussed a lot about uncertainty and instability in the region. In the last several years, the evolution of Asia-Pacific security architecture has been one of the most significant developments. Due to many emerging traditional and non-traditional issues, as well as adjustment of foreign policies by major powers in the region, a number of major initiatives have emerged. Two of them are the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US, and to some extent, the BRI of China.

For more than 50 years, ASEAN has played a central role in the evolution of the regional security architecture. However, currently the centrality of ASEAN is facing prominent challenges. Though confirming support for ASEAN's central role, the major powers have also sought to influence the bloc as a whole as well as its individual members, affecting the unity and solidarity of the central role of the organization. Meanwhile, the mechanism and framework of ASEAN-led cooperation has revealed many shortcomings, especially overlapping functions, lack of vision and low efficiency. ASEAN has also failed to demonstrate solidarity, consistency and initiative to better maintain its primary role.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor, director, Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand

ASEAN is facing some serious challenges from within and outside. Within, you can see some divisions that we need to recognize and address head on. Over the last six years, there have been some changes in the ground reality and shift in issues. The South China Sea issue for example, has divided ASEAN. On the mainland, such as the Mekong region in Thailand, the construction of dams upstream has been detrimental to downstream communities and countries including Vietnam and Cambodia. There are a number of thorny issues for ASEAN to grapple with.

Within ASEAN countries, there have been disturbances over democratization and authoritarianism. We have also seen regional differences, meaning maritime ASEAN countries have interests that are not a priority for mainland member countries.

From outside, some frustration has been voiced for ASEAN's inability to provide the driving force. It is in the driving seat, but not going anywhere fast enough. The external players have started to take matters in their own hands, with new ways of looking at the region, such as the Indo-Pacific concept.

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