ASEAN NON-ALIGNMENT: 'Zopfan' best policy for region

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I THANK G. Jeyaganesh for sharing his thoughts (NST, July 19) on my column, "A difficult rebalancing act" (NST, July 3).

Jeyaganesh claims that the central argument is obscure. The article was written with the intention of raising questions, rather than providing answers. Indeed, the careful reader will be able to discern the questions raised for discussion in various parts of the article. Specifically, it asked if the "supposed" acquiescence to a larger United States military footprint is a component of the regional states' hedging strategy, or is this a harbinger of a shift towards a balancing strategy against China?

Contrary to Jeyaganesh's assertion, there was no attempt to link the strategic option of "not having to choose" to "neutrality".

However, the reader was left with a probing question of whether the reaffirmation of the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (Zopfan) could provide some clarity and insight into the present conundrum.

On paper, Zopfan, which was promulgated in 1971, is commonly linked with neutrality, but in reality, Asean was closer to non-alignment. Despite being staunchly anti-Communist throughout the Cold War, Asean engaged nations across the ideological spectrum. Neutrality provided the cover for Asean to effect its omni-directional engagement, but Asean was not gearing up to be the Switzerland of the East.

The singular objective of Zopfan, as enshrined in the declaration, was for Southeast Asia to be "free from any form or manner of interference by outside powers".

Asean took great care to prevent the region from being divided by major powers, while at the same time being vigilant against the entrenchment of a hegemonic power in the region. This, and not neutrality, is the most important tenet of Zopfan.

As a collage of 10 relatively small nations, Asean faces a strategic conundrum. It finds itself between the world's two largest economies that, while often professing their commitment to cooperation and stability, eye each other with suspicion.

These suspicions seep into regional affairs in many forms. One such suspicion is the strategic rivalry between China and the US. Jeyaganesh is right when he states that China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) is fast modernising and is equipped with new weapons systems that can be used to challenge American military primacy in the region.

But, surely, we must acknowledge that the US enjoys an unmatched edge over the PLA in the immediate and near future. Lest we forget, the contest is not for survival but rather, power and influence in the region.

Jeyaganesh is also correct in saying that Asean is caught in the crossfire between "the US and Chinese brinkmanship".

But this does not mean that Asean should lie idle and allow others to dictate its fate and future. At the same time, we should not resign ourselves only to the option of balancing or "choosing sides". The strategic challenge for Asean is to extricate itself from the crossfire to which Jeyaganesh has alluded.

As a footnote to address Jegaganesh's query, Robert Haddick sourced his statistics from the Annual Report to Congress submitted by Deputy Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter. The numbers quoted in the article would make more sense to Jeyaganesh if he had taken note that it was referring to "major" combat ships, and not the "total naval force inventory".

Once again, I welcome constructive comments and look forward to more engagement with readers.

Motorboats anchoring at a partially submerged island of the Truong Sa islands or Spratlys, which is a source of tension between China and some Asean nations.


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