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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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ASEAN's Balancing Act

Jul. 28, 2015

Foreign ministers from Southeast Asian countries will meet in Malaysia from this weekend to discuss the region’s future. The 10 nations hope to establish a single market. One key step toward achieving that goal will be the launch later this year of the ASEAN Economic Community, or AEC. With a freer flow of capital, goods, and services, the AEC is expected to bring growth to a region where more than 600 million people live.

The ministers will hold another key meeting -- the ASEAN Regional Forum -- together with important players such as Japan, the US, China, and North Korea. The significance of these meetings is increasing because they bring together representatives of 2 global powers -- the US and China. Our anchor Sho Beppu reports from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital.

In the financial center of Kuala Lumpur, you can feel the energy of Malaysia’s economic growth. But it’s not only this country. The region itself is rising as an engine of growth, and that’s why major powers are competing to expand its influence. Malaysia is hosting important ASEAN meetings as the chair this year. But chairing is no easy task. Members have different interests, and the region faces multiple challenges.

One contentious issue is China’s reclamation of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Half of the world’s commercial shipping passes through the area. That’s over $5 trillion in trade. Among ASEAN members, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have territorial disputes with China.

ASEAN members and China made initial agreements to establish a Code of Conduct to avoid confrontations and ensure the freedom of navigation. But they haven’t seen much progress, and some members don’t want to antagonize China.

ASEAN leaders said in a statement in April that they share the serious concerns expressed by some leaders -- that the land reclamation has eroded trust and could undermine peace and stability in the South China Sea.

Ash Carter, the US Defense Secretary said, "China is out of step with both the international rules and norms that underscore the Asia-Pacific security architecture."

American leaders have also been demanding that China stop its reclamation activities.

China is ASEAN’s largest trading partner. The launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank led by China has raised expectations for much needed investment in member countries. The response to China's vision of creating a new Silk Road over land and sea has been largely positive.

The US has raised concerns along with Japan about whether the governing of the bank will be transparent. US-China relations could be one factor that tests the unity of ASEAN.

ASEAN leadership was also called into question recently with revelations of the brutality of human trafficking. Thousands of Rohingyas were left adrift in the Andaman Sea as countries struggled to agree on who would take them in.

ASEAN’s diversity gives the region strength, but differences can sometimes be weaknesses. Geopolitical factors are also testing its unity.


Sho Beppu spoke with a former senior Malaysian diplomat who has a more than 30-year career in the field of diplomacy and asked how ASEAN can face its challenges.

Rastam Mohamad Isa is the former Secretary General of the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He now serves as the Chairman and Chief Executive of a security think tank, the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia.

Beppu: Tensions are high on China’s reclamation work in the South China Sea. How ASEAN will deal with this?

Isa:: Activities that have taken place in the South China Sea have raised concerns; you might recall that at the last ASEAN summit, a statement was issued regarding that. I believe that it reflects the sentiment that exists among all the countries concerned, not just the claimant countries, but all the other ASEAN countries because activities of this nature actually run counter to international law. I think China has taken notice of that, and obviously, they are also taking steps to ensure that tensions are not raised in the South China Sea.

Beppu: Some people might worry that it’s not really making any progress. What is your assessment of the Code of Conduct?

Isa:: Very little progress has been achieved, but I believe what is important is that the parties concerned are talking. People are aware of the need to ensure that tensions do not rise.

Beppu: How concerned are you that this could lead to more tensions in the region?

Isa:: If that happens, yes, we have to worry. But if people are doing that in the context of trying to balance or re-balance one another, then of course it should be a matter of concern to all of us. But we have to remember that back in the 1970s for example, the original members of ASEAN, the 5 member countries of ASEAN, came up with the concept of the zone of peace, freedom, and neutrality. That was precisely what they wanted -- just for the region, including the South China Sea, to be an area of peace and stability.

Beppu: How do you see the involvement of the United States in the region?

Isa:: The ASEAN countries recognize that the United States has a role to play in Southeast Asia -- economic, security, political, and in other aspects as well. Now, of course, while welcoming the United States’ interests in the region, I think it is important also to ensure that the US does not create situations that could give rise to problems for us in the region. Now, if there is tension between China and the United States and conflict arises between the two, of course, we, in Southeast Asia, would feel the impact.

Beppu: How about the Chinese? Recently there was much discussions and interest was high about the AIIB. Do you think that is a thing that would expand Chinese influence?

Isa:: As you know, ASEAN needs to build up infrastructure. ASEAN is keen on developing connectivity. There is the ASEAN master plan on connectivity. So the AIIB I think will help to complement whatever other efforts.

Beppu: What role Japan can play?

Isa:: Japan has been very forthcoming in terms of providing the necessary resources for the development of the ASEAN countries. What should not happen is for Japan to come into the fray on the side of anyone. If Japan were to come in with intentions that are seen as not so peaceful, then it could create problems.


Shibuya: So Sho, what does the former senior Malaysian diplomat Isa have to say about ASEAN’s own issues?

Beppu: He said that their relationships with global powers and with each other are being tested. I also asked him how member states are addressing the issue of human trafficking.


Beppu: What more should be done by ASEAN to address the recent boat people crisis?

Isa:: Relating to the Rohingyas will have to be resolved, with, of course, the full cooperation of the Myanmar authorities and the Myanmar people themselves. Then there’s the question of what happens afterwards. Do we settle them temporarily with a view to resettling them in third countries later on? Or do we send them back? So these are all solutions that require serious discussions, and I believe ASEAN should pay attention to this.

Beppu: What could economic integration mean for ASEAN?

Isa:: It provides opportunities for a market that is stable, that is fairly large, therefore, obviously, the community itself will be able to attract a lot of investments from abroad.


Here in Kuala Lumpur, ASEAN heads of state will gather in November to pave the way for a future single market.

Southeast Asia looks set to be a center of economic growth in the coming years. This potential is attracting large interests from major players such as the US, China, Japan, India and others.

I gathered from today’s interview that it’s a challenge for ASEAN to deal with each of these powers, as they sometimes have different interests. And this has to be done while preserving the unity of its own members.