Dec 24, 2012

China - South China Sea disputes: A choke point for Asean?

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In 2008, US President Barack Obama, in his first term, undertook a something-for-all goodwill trip to the Middle East, but failed to bring peace or stability to the region. 

The recent vote at the UN to grant Palestinians elevated status further weakened the position of the US and its allies. The "Arab Spring" that started in 2010 has turned into an Arab nightmare, putting the whole region at risk.

Obama's recent trip to Cambodia to attend the Asean Summit has cast a shadow over US intentions in the region. While the US tried to portray the South China Sea as a major regional crisis, outgoing Chinese premier Hu Jintao, who also joined the summit, showed no interest in discussing any issue related disputed islands. In fact, he made it clear that Asean was not the right forum to discuss such issues.

Once again, Asean members demonstrated their inability to unite to deal with an important regional issue, and also refrained from discussing other problems of rights, human trafficking, political and social strife, poverty and inequality in its own backyard. It is becoming increasingly evident that unless Asean can forge strong unity it may become subservient to the superpowers, or even irrelevant. A careful examination of 45 years of its existence indicates that on major regional issues it has completely failed to act as a unified bloc.

In the last century the US fought three major wars in this region with very deadly consequences. Many countries in the region are still suffering from the scars of the Second World War and the Vietnam and Korean wars. It should be remembered that for most of last century Western countries exploited the Asia-Pacific region for their own political and economic interests.

The Western countries that dominate powerful global bodies such as the United Nations, G-7, WTO, IMF and World Bank are now on the verge of economic collapse. The forces of colonisation are now replaced by the forces globalisation. Once again, Western powers are rushing to cash in on the region's precious human capital, natural resources and growing prosperity.

We are living in interesting times. Asean is expecting huge investments from its immediate neighbour, China. India is also exerting its political and economic influence in the region. Although the Asean economy is doing better, it still relies heavily on the US and European countries. In this context, we need to realise that in a globalized economy "beggars cannot be choosers".

How can Asean oppose China, the US or EU when it wants huge trade benefits from them? While being a part of a bloc, the member countries are also strengthening their own unilateral economic ties with the superpowers. Can Asean deal with the chasm created by the superpowers without putting its own existence in danger? Can Asean exist on its own terms as a unified bloc? So far, it does not look like.
When the big powers intrude on a regional bloc, they tactfully disrupt its unity through their own unilateral and multilateral ties and treaties.

In this regard, there is something important to learn from the BRICS countries, which were once touted as a power bloc to counter Western power. BRICS has become completely irrelevant within a very short span of time. The reasons are obvious: nations with poor leadership and disjointed policies cannot forge a powerful and unified bloc. Asean is becoming a failure because of its inability to unite and deal with important issues related to South China Sea.

To remain viable and strong, Asean must learn from the current financial crises in the US and EU. The "fiscal cliff" caused by consumer capitalism in the US is starting to rear its ugly head in the region. A credit card-based consumer economy, which crippled Western countries, is now spreading like wildfire in the region.

Mindless marketing schemes, wasteful mega projects and populist government policies in the region have the potential to drastically reduce the revenue needed to sustain the very sectors that are being targeted for growth.

As mentioned, Barack Obama's first-term outing in the Middle East was a failure. In his recent visit to Thailand, he said that "the US is a Pacific power". In other words, the US will meddle in Asean affairs.
However, the rise of China and India poses serious challenges to the US. There is a saying in US that "all politics is local". Hence the US should recognise that its naval presence in Asian seas may not be enough to contain China.

It is becoming clear that dominance on the world stage cannot be achieved by focusing on military hardware, open sea lanes and trade routes. Politicians and leaders in the public and private sectors within Asean need to work on communication skills, to match or do better than their Western counterparts. A lack of young leaders with excellent communication skills is a missing link in Asean polity. For a nation to be seen as a power, it needs assertive leaders who can successfully engage in world affairs.

Over the last 50 years, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan became very successful economies, but they had no political clout on the world stage. Leaders from these countries largely remained subservient to Western powers. Even the appointment of Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean, as secretary general of the UN in 2007 was spearheaded by the US. Similarly, the gunboat diplomacy being adopted by Japan to resolve the South China Sea disputes will not yield positive results.

It would be fair to say that in the last decade Asean has made strides in resolving trade and tariff issues across the region. Changes in immigration policies and visa regulations have benefited the travel sector and improved the mobility of ordinary citizens in the region. However, Asean will need a new crop of leaders who can lead on the world stage and influence global events and policies.

During his tenure as Asean secretary-general, Surin Pitsuwan of Thailand has tried hard to bring Asean into the limelight. Without assertive leaders like him, Asean is destined to become weaker or irrelevant. For most of its existence over the last 45 years Asean has remained a toothless organisation. But with young and assertive leaders it could counter the rising power of the US and China in the region.

However, its increasing dependence on China, the US and EU for trade and regional security will have negative consequences for its own existence as a bloc. In this context, the South China Sea could become a choke point with disastrous consequences for the region.

Kuldeep Nagi

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