KUALA LUMPUR: China is no different from other rising powers in history in wanting to get its way, according to two foremost Asean experts.
They said China had been throwing its weight around in the South China Sea with regard to the territorial claims of smaller states.
Asean Business Advisory Council, Malaysia chairman Tan Sri Mohd Munir Abdul Majid said that, in view of this, there was all the more reason for Asean to take a united and common stand, which should include non-claimant member states.
Munir, who is also Malaysia’s Economic Action Council member, said Asean’s unity, since its formation in 1967, was necessary for a better bargaining position with China.
“In 2002, China signed the Declaration of Conduct with Asean, with regards to the South China Sea.
“By 2010, it claimed the disputes did not involve Asean as a whole.
“But, Asean has a stake in the peace and stability of the region.
“Indeed in 2010, China deemed the South China Sea as its core interest.
“Although China has assured that it will not attack other nations, its behaviour over recent years has changed as it became bigger and stronger,” Munir said in response to a question by Italian ambassador Cristiano Maggipinto on the NST’s front-page lead “Spratlys Irrefutably Ours” on March 3.
Munir said this at the “Friends of Thailand Circle Talk Series: Navigating Asean in a Turbulent World” at the Royal Thai Embassy in Jalan Ampang, here.
Also a guest speaker at the talk hosted by Thai ambassador Narong Sasitorn, was Thailand’s former Foreign Affairs permanent secretary Sihasak Phuangketkeow.
Munir said China should realise that other nations did not claim international waterways that were named after their countries.
“There is the Indian Ocean and the Straits of Malacca, as examples, which are not claimed in their entirety by India and Malaysia.
“However, (as a result) of China’s actions, Indonesia has now renamed the southern part of the South China Sea as the Natuna Sea (surrounding the Natuna archipelago),” said Munir.
He emphasised that the rise of China had economic, security and military consequences on Asean that the regional grouping should be alert to.
“Take the Mekong sub-region with a 400 million population comprising the CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) Asean member states, plus Thailand and the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi.
“The pull from China could develop into a push away from Asean,” he said.
Munir emphasised that Asean needed strong political leadership. He added that Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was acknowledged by Asean leaders as a man of vision and was a crucial factor for the region to forge ahead.
Munir called on the 630 million-strong Asean, as the world’s fifth largest economy worth US$2.8 trillion (RM11.5 trllion), to capitalise on the digital revolution.
He said Asean should reduce and remove non-tariff barriers and tariffs, while easing labour mobility to enhance greater work efficiency.
“The region’s economic growth will be sub-optimal with such barriers,” he said.
Sihasak echoed Munir’s comments, saying that the South China Sea was a big problem.
“But, it was a bigger problem dealing with China. Asean has a legitimate right concerning the peace and stability, freedom of navigation and the trade route via the South China Sea.
“One cannot divide Asean over this matter,” said Sihasak.
He added that it was time for the Asean Secretariat, by empowering its secretary-general, to be more vocal and forceful in defending its rights, rather than depend on the Asean Summit.
“There needs to be greater connectivity among Asean member nations to finance cross-border trade with sound infrastructure for mutual benefit.
“But, this must be done by harmonising the rules and regulations,” said Sihasak.
He recounted how Asean’s image was badly shaken during the Asean Foreign Minister’s Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 2012.
“We could not reach a consensus on the jurisdiction in the South China Sea, with regards to China.
Asean has gone through challenging times with its unity tested during the Cambodian internal conflict. But, it has emerged as the most successful regional alliance today, by drawing on its inner strength to find the path.
“Asean should consider its national and regional interests and not be influenced or pushed around by bigger powers,” he said.
Sihasak added that former Asean secretary-general, the late Surin Pitsuwan of Thailand, had called on Asean to resolve issues within its fold, rather than with outside influence.