Asean’s role in calming turbulent seas — Simon Tay
MAY 2 — Military exercises among treaty allies should normally neither surprise nor cause offence. But those just completed between the United States and the Philippines are perceived differently and not without some justification.
With some 7,000 troops reportedly involved, the bilateral exercise took place at Palawan island in the South China Sea, where different islets are disputed between China and the Philippines. The exercise, moreover, follows a high-profile stand-off between the Philippine Coast Guard and fishing vessels from China at the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
Military commanders on both sides mostly treated the exercise as being routine, part of the long-running Balikatan manoeuvres. Political statements run contrary. Both Philippine President Benigno Aquino and Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario reacted by calling on not only the US but others in the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) to rally against China’s alleged aggressiveness.
Beijing, in contrast, has shown restraint. While their media commentators have been hawkish, government officials like Vice-Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai emphasise dialogue and diplomacy.
Privately, officials admit that a historical map they released with dotted lines all across the South China Sea does not mean they claim it all.
A public retraction by Beijing is, however, almost impossible at this time of leadership change and internal turbulence.
Following Bo Xi-lai’s high-profile dismissal, questions are being asked about the military’s alignment and nationalistic drum-beating would be a tempting response that the Chinese leaders have so far not given in to.
How best should the Americans and Asean respond?
US President Barack Obama’s declaration of a “pivot” to Asia sets the context. Many read this to mean that the US is prepared to take sides against China, even as American leaders strongly deny any such intention.
Symbolism must be watched.
Late last year, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton celebrated the 60th anniversary of their Filipino alliance aboard a US guided missile destroyer in Manila Bay.
She also pledged to support the Philippines in the maritime domain and transfer a naval vessel to their command.
The reality is that the Americans face a reduction in the forces across Asia. The US military has recently reduced its presence in Okinawa by 9,000 marines.
The Philippines, which once hosted large American military contingents at the Subic and Clark bases, has now welcomed American troops to return, on a rotational basis, although there is currently no suggestion for new bases.
The current Obama team is savvy enough to manage the US pivot to Asia, without getting ensnared by anti-Chinese interests.
But even if Obama is re-elected, Clinton has indicated she will leave and Washington’s well-regarded pointman on Asia, Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, is also likely to depart.
A new American team will be in place by next year and there will be a learning curve.
If it is a Republican administration, there has also been strong campaign rhetoric from leading contender Mitt Romney that can raise tensions.
On its part, Asean should not automatically back the Philippines. Nor should the Aquino government expect unquestioning support from the group if the Filipinos seem to be the ones who are provoking the issue, rather than the Chinese.
What needs to be done by Asean is to reinforce the multilateral setting for dialogue about the South China Sea and other issues.
The Asean Regional Forum will be one venue, while another will be when Asean defence ministers meet with eight counterparts, including the US and China.
More specifically, a Code of Conduct for disputes in the South China Sea has been promised, and needs to be fleshed out and agreed in practical terms.
Bilateral security alliances — like that between the US and the Philippines — were once accepted benignly as a foundation for Pax Americana.
They will undoubtedly continue. Some, moreover, appear anxious to reinforce them by, if need be, ringing the China alarm bells.
Today’s need, however, is not for more aggressive alliances with the US, targeted against anyone. The region needs to, instead, pursue and strengthen wider processes that can engage both the US and China.
Almost all agree that keeping the Americans in Asia can be positive. But equally, the region must understand that treating Beijing as an outsider and presuming it to always be the aggressor is a dangerous and potentially self-fulfilling prophecy. — Today
* Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and author of Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post Crisis Divide from America. He also teaches international law at the National University of Singapore.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.