ASEAN at 50: The challenge of cohesion | opinion$Comment | Hindustan Times
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ASEAN at 50: The challenge of cohesion

ASEAN today has ten members and ten dialogue partners including India and China. It has Matured into a 50 year old adult.It is also the silver jubilee year for India-ASEAN. And ASEAN strives for cohesion as the big powers indulge in shadow boxing

opinion Updated: Aug 08, 2017 16:52 IST
Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, third from right, and Shri V.K. Singh, center, India's minister of State for External Affairs, co-chairs of the ASEAN-India Ministerial Meeting of the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting and Related Meetings, link arms with representatives of other ASEAN foreign ministers prior to the start of their meeting Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017 in Manila, Philippines. The annual forum, hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, brings together the top diplomats from 26 countries and the European Union for talks on political and security issues in Asia-Pacific.
Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, third from right, and Shri V.K. Singh, center, India's minister of State for External Affairs, co-chairs of the ASEAN-India Ministerial Meeting of the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting and Related Meetings, link arms with representatives of other ASEAN foreign ministers prior to the start of their meeting Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017 in Manila, Philippines. The annual forum, hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, brings together the top diplomats from 26 countries and the European Union for talks on political and security issues in Asia-Pacific.(AP)

Some 100 km from Bangkok in Thailand, Bangsaen today is a tourist hub with several resorts, shops and 7/11 convenience stores. But in 1967 it was relatively isolated. In early August that year, five foreign ministers negotiated an important document in this beach town at the residence of erstwhile Prime Minister Field Marshall Plaek Pibulsonggram. The humour, rounds of golf and sports shirt diplomacy paved the way for the Bangkok Declaration for the foundation of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

S. Rajaratnam, the first foreign minister of Singapore at the inaugural session of ASEAN said, “ We want to ensure a stable Southeast Asia, not a balkanised Southeast Asia.”

ASEAN today has ten members and ten dialogue partners including India and China. It has Matured into a 50 year old adult.It is also the silver jubilee year for India-ASEAN. And ASEAN strives for cohesion as the big powers indulge in shadow boxing.

Between Consensus and Collision

Aimed at regional integration, ASEAN was based on three pillars: political-security, economics and socio-cultural ties . As set out in the ASEAN declaration, one of the aims and purposes of the grouping is to “promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law in the relationship among countries of the region and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter”. But this is challenged today by lack of internal cohesion and arm twisting by China. The annual $5 trillion shipping lanes of the South China Sea have seen conflicting claims and building of artificial islands by Beijing on territory claimed by it, but disputed by Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam,Brunei and the non-ASEAN Taiwan. Smaller countries like Laos and Cambodia are being enticed though cheque book diplomacy. Critics like Philippines which challenged China’s maritime expansion in international court of law, under current President Duterte have since warmed up to Beijing in exchange for billions of dollars in investments or aid.

At a seminar organised by Strategic Studies Centre, Thailand on ASEAN and the world in Chonburi, Xu Nanfeng, (retired) major general and vice chairman of the China Institute for International Strategic Studies (CIISS), when asked about his country’s rejection of an international tribunal ruling under the United Nations Convention for Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS) in the Philippines arbitration case, said, “We are very glad to see that the Philippines government has come back on the right track of consultations and negotiations on South China Sea.” The message was clear – we will talk about upholding international norms on paper but negotiate with countries directly concerned and ASEAN while rejecting international rulings.

Meanwhile, from 2002 to now, ASEAN member states that profess the desire to not become part of any military alliance, have watered down their statements on China’s expansionist footprints in the South China Sea. Amid internal differences and Vietnam taking a hard stand within ASEAN that the draft code of conduct be legally binding, no assurances have been forthcoming on the same from Beijing.

In his treatise titled India’s Tryst with Asia, ambassador K. Kesavapany , eminent Singaporean diplomat-scholar wrote of China,“Once it is highly developed, it is unlikely to be like Japan, an economic giant and political pigmy. Rather, it is possible that China would aspire to be a co-hegemon with the US (which leaves open the question of) whether the US would be willing to share global domination with it.”

The US is still engaged with the region but Obama’s Asia rebalance has been replaced with Donald Trump’s unpredictability. The view is that America’s interest in the region is more to do with deal making than maintaining global order.But the US and Japan continue their strategic alignment from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. It is not just the US-Japan power dynamics, but also Chinese ambitions that are challenged with the rise of India.

In the shadow of India-China

The trilateral tango of US-Japan-India during the Malabar exercise has significant symbolism. Unlike in the past,India no longer shies away from making statements on flash points in the region – competing territorial claims at sea and North Korean nuke ambitions. India’s strong reservations to the One Belt One Road project that China has been hard selling to ASEAN among others is well known. In its 11th May statement on staying away from the Belt and Road Initiative Forum, the Indian foreign ministry said, ‘Connectivity initiatives must follow principles of financial responsibility to avoid projects that would create unsustainable debt burden for communities.’ ‘Connectivity projects must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity,’ it added.

Addressing the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore in July, foreign secretary S Jaishankar underlined, “In this changing landscape, few would dispute that the evolving India-China relationship has a direct implication for ASEAN, for the larger Asia Pacific, and perhaps even globally. We are all aware by now of the complexity inherent in the rise of two major powers near simultaneously, that too in close proximity.”

The ongoing troops standoff at the Doklam tri-junction underlines the serious differences existing in the multi-dimensional India-China relationship today. With ASEAN hoping to hammer out a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with six of its FTA partners including India and China, the jury is out on whether differences can be prevented from escalating into disputes between the economic giants.

Former national security advisor Shiv Shankar Menon cautions that India needs ASEAN as an interlocutor in the region today. “ASEAN countries will behave with both India-China as realists.Every country looks at disputes from own point of view if sovereignty and integrity is concerned, or if you see an opportunity that arises out of complex issues. We should know what they are doing, but not be there to bring someone down, rather do what is in our own interest,” says Menon.

In the post Cold War era, ASEAN ushered in economic growth that was sustained through the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the 2008 economic recession.But moving forward, as ASEAN looks to take the next leap forward, the competing power engines could spur its growth or pull it in different directions.

Smita Sharma is a former journalist with India Today TV and Network 18

The views expressed are personal