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TESTED TIMES: Member states must stay united with a common goal and identity
FOR a month now, the waters of the South China Sea have been warmed up somewhat, thanks to the arrival of American, Chinese and Filipino battleships around the area known as Scarborough Shoal.
What began as a simple dispute over fishing rights has now escalated into something decidedly more sinister, and the rest of Asean should take note that developments such as these do not bode well for the economic and political future of the region as a whole.
Since the 1970s, Asean has tried its best to steer away from the choppy waters of the Cold War conflict, navigating precariously between the Eastern and Western blocs in order to maintain both the neutrality of the region and its safety as well. We forget, time and again, that apart from the European Union, Asean has been the only other multilateral international body that has prevented the return of wars between nation-states, and this is no mean feat when we look at the occurrences of conflict elsewhere in the world.
Asean, however, has to evolve and it undoubtedly shall in the decades to come. In the coming years, Asean nations will face new challenges that include how to deal with the rising demands and expectations of better educated youth, urbanisation, distribution of equity, ensuring social security and others. But Asean's success lies in its ability to work together as a coherent assembly of nations that take into account the needs of the region as a whole.
Since the Scarborough Shoal incident, some pressure has been put on Asean to stand together and to present a common front, so to speak, to China. Some of the more nationalist leaders of the Philippines have suggested that they have been "abandoned" or "orphaned" by their Asean counterparts, and have raised the banner of national pride instead. To be sure, Scarborough Shoal is indeed closer to the Philippines than it is to China, and a glance at the map will support that observation. But what is at issue here is not geography or the claims of history but rather the need for Asean countries to remain in the Asean fold and to recognise that a single state cannot go it alone and then expect the others to follow suit: that would be a case of having your cake and eating it, too.
Lest we be taken in by the notion that anti-China sentiments are rife in the Philippines, we ought to remember that in the recent past, numerous Philippine politicians have made gracious overtures to Beijing: former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was the one who witnessed the China-funded project to build a National Broadband Network in the country, with the assistance of China's Zhong Xing Telecommunications Corporation. Another project (that failed to take off) backed by both governments was the Northern Rail project. Relations between the two countries have, in fact, been cordial since the normalisation of relations with Beijing in 1975.
The Philippines, however, has at times chosen to go on its own and deal with China directly, such as during the China-Philippines Joint Seismic Marine Undertaking (JSMU) of 2005-2008, when it was later joined by Vietnam.
During the JSMU, the Philippines cooperated with China in the marine survey of the South China Sea, collecting and analysing economically important data about the seabed of the South China Sea. Where was the Philippines’ spirit of collaboration with Asean then? As the scholar Aileen Baviera has noted, during the JSMU operation, Manila had accommodated Beijing’s bilateral approach, and was subsequently criticised for “undermining Asean solidarity on the issue”. When Philippine-China relations were at their peak, few Philippine politicians complained about being “abandoned” or “orphaned” by Asean. Instead, it was the other way round, with Asean governments wondering if it was the Philippines that had abandoned Asean.
In the light of current developments, Manila would do well to remember that the future of the Philippines is linked intimately to the future of Asean. But for Asean to be able to present a united face to the world, some cohesion and cooperation is necessary from all member states. With only a few years to go to 2015 when Asean hopes to welcome a new era of Asean cooperation and common identity, it is vital that all the member states of Asean busy themselves with the task of generating more Asean awareness among their people. Breaking ranks and brokering bilateral deals with other countries while neglecting common Asean concerns is not the way to move forward. And at the moment, it is highly doubtful if the rest of Asean wishes to be dragged into a conflict with China, which happens to be the biggest trading partner of several Asean economies.
Post-2015, Asean will face a new era where its collective identity will be tested. Already, the region is witness to the resurgence of China, India and the United States. Will Asean be able to hold its own and maintain some sense of common purpose and identity? Yes, but only if we dance by the Asean tune and think of Asean’s future as our own.