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SOFT DIPLOMACY: Circuit-breakers can defuse tensions that may arise between the US and China
WHILE Malaysians have been preoccupied by the run-up to the next general election, we have overlooked events that have been taking place closer to home.
For not too far from our shores, some of the world's superpowers have been active of late, and taking positions that we cannot afford to ignore.
One such incident took place a week ago, when a standoff was reached between the naval forces of the Philippines and China. The episode was sparked by the capture of fishing vessels by Philippine authorities, who claimed that these Chinese fishing boats were operating in Philippine territory.
Without the benefit of circuit-breakers, the matter soon escalated to the point where the Philippines dispatched its warship, raising alarms about a conflict that might erupt at any minute.
Compounding matters has been the naval exercise carried out by the Philippine and the American navies, which was seen by China as yet another act of provocation and which elicited bellicose responses from the Chinese side.
Notwithstanding China's posturing over the matter, the question still deserves to be raised: doesn't the Philippines, or any Asean country for that matter, have the right to engage in joint naval exercises with another country?
The worrisome thing about these developments is the fact that mundane situations can be interpreted differently, as they are bound to be, by different actors, and reacted to differently as well.
Yet when China invested massively in road, rail and other communication networks across Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar, which gave it access to the Indian Ocean, we did not hear much talk about Armageddon around the corner.
It should be clear to all that Southeast Asia and Asean's territorial waters could soon be the stage for another stand-off between the superpowers, and it is vital that Asean countries introduce circuit-breakers that could defuse tensions that may arise as a result of the renewed interest in the region on the part of the United States, India and China.
Furthermore, the greater powers ought to do their history-reading and come to realise that Southeast Asia has been an overlapping confederation of maritime powers, and a conduit for the movement of ideas, commodities and peoples.
In the past, not a single Southeast Asian power -- be it Majapahit, Mataram, Angkor, Pagan or any other kingdom -- has ever posed an existential threat to another nation in or beyond the region.
Pacifism and pragmatism have always been the hallmark of Southeast Asian politics, from the eighth century to the present.
It is for this reason that countries like China would do better by investing in long-needed soft diplomacy in the region. From the era of the Cold War, China's image in the region has been one that was sometimes seen as predatory and domineering.
Chinese naval maps that point to the South China Sea as Chinese territory do not dampen the concern of Southeast Asian policymakers, who worry about what China has in store for the region in the long run.
Some of the recent comments by Chinese politicians and members of the military elite about showing who is boss does not help, but only aggravates matters.
On top of that, though Southeast Asia has been accommodating to everyone for centuries, it does not mean that the region is made up of weak, walkover states that will cower at the first threat either. Let us not forget that even a smallish state like Vietnam held its own against China in the past.
Asean nations should also take heed of what has been going on in the region we share together.
Our media tends to be inward-looking, and a cursory look at the major debates in other Asean countries would suggest that Asean societies are too concerned about the internal workings of their polities and unaware of the common lot we share, and our common destiny.
For these reasons, efforts have to be made at all levels, from education to media to soft diplomacy, to expand the focus of our concerns, and to persuade Asean nations that it is in their interest to keep an eye out beyond their shores and to realise that bigger plans are unfolding.
The economic crisis points to the emerging energy and resource crisis that will impact on all of us.
It will be foolish for us to think that Asean's long record of neutrality will insulate it from the realities of geo-politics and the contest of the superpowers.