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AsiaTuesday, June 13

NRT Focus - ASEAN: Between Superpowers

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In that time, this organization for regional cooperation has often found itself caught between major powers. Now is another such moment, as the United States appears poised to pull away from Asia.

Ministers and delegates from dozens of countries gathered in Singapore in early June for the annual Asia Security Summit, better known as the Shangri-la Dialogue.

For the participants from Southeast Asian nations, the big subject of discussion was the US-China power shift.

"You know the US has been playing the greatest role in maintaining the world order until today, and China's rise would be an interaction that would mean for some kind of power-sharing with the US," said Ha Hoang Hop, Founder of Think Now VietKnow.

"With China, we have a 2,000-kilometer border. It's important and we have had traditionally good relations with China. Pertaining to the US and China, we’d be happy to have both to help us move to the next stage," said U Thaung Tun, Myanmar National Security Advisor.

"All countries in the region, I would emphasize, want a good relationship with both countries, and they do not really want to have to choose, but it's getting harder and harder," said Chan Heng Chee, Former Singaporean Ambassador to US. ASEAN members are deeply worried about China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Beijing claims most of the contested waters. It has resorted to building artificial islands and militarizing facilities in international waters. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all have rival claims.

While former President Barack Obama was in charge, the US maintained a “Rebalance to Asia” policy that stressed the strategic importance of engaging with the region.

But the "rebalance" is under threat under the current administration of Donald Trump. It's no surprise that all eyes were on US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the meeting.

"The United States will continue to adapt and continue to expand its ability to work with others to secure a peaceful, prosperous Asia...We have a deep and abiding commitment to reinforcing the rules-based international order," Mattis said.

Mattis's strong message of support was intended to reassure the participants that the US will continue to work with Asia. But not everyone was convinced.

Just days before the conference, President Trump announced his intention to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change. This decision raised doubts about Washington's own commitment to the rules-based order it claims to champion.

"The United States has a track record of agreeing to multilateral agreements and partnerships like TPP, and the Rome Statute, Kyoto Protocol to name a few, but has backed out, has not signed, has not ratified. So what does that say about US leadership? What does it say about US commitment to a rule-based international order?” says Tang Siew Mun, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Newsroom Tokyo anchors Aiko Doden and Aki Shibuya discuss the issue.

Shibuya: The delegates from ASEAN countries don't sound very happy. Where does this frustration come from?

Doden: ASEAN, which turns 50 in August, is facing a big test. Members must decide whether the region should bow to the major powers, or chart its own course.

China has reached out to the extent that it has become the dominant trading partner. ASEAN has always tried to avoid the “either/or” choice of choosing between the US and China. But as delegates at the Shangri-la Dialogue admitted, it's increasingly difficult to maintain good relations with both countries as China rises and the US chooses to somewhat disengage.

Shibuya: Southeast Asia is a growing region, but one plagued with sensitive security issues. How can the region meet those challenges? What's Japan's role in this?

Doden: In May, US and Japanese warships carried out a joint exercise in the South China Sea. But we also need to look into the non-military challenges in the region.

What was once a grouping of less-developed Southeast Asian states is now a vibrant market of 620 million people. But there exist huge inequalities and disparities among the ASEAN members, and they can be influenced and divided by external aid donors such as China.

Countries that are not democracies tend to be drawn closer to Beijing too.

Outside powers will continue to influence ASEAN, but it is up to the member countries to find ways to navigate through the uncertainty, and bring stability and resilience to the region.