Guest Column

Asean Must Get Savvy with Superpowers

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 9 July 2012

For the audience in Washington, Assistant State Secretary for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell’s speech at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies on June 26 was very fitting and calculated.

He stressed the White House’s strategy in Asia and highlighted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to the region with a big delegation this week. This included representatives of both the private and public sectors as well as philanthropists after a series of meetings in Phnom Penh during the Asean annual ministerial conference.

Campbell mentioned quite a few countries in Southeast Asia that are pivotal to the US—Laos, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Burma and, of course, the Philippines with its revitalized alliance. He even praised Manila, especially President Beningo Aquino, as one of the best governments the US has worked with over the past 20 years.

But although Campbell mentioned Indonesian Ambassador Dino Patti Djalal who was in the audience at the time, what was conspicuously absent yet again from his speech was Thailand.

The fact that Kurt neglected Thailand, despite an animated Thai-US strategic dialogue being held in Washington less than two weeks earlier, is a strong indication that all was not well within this relationship. Obviously, the joint statement after their discussions failed to reflect the true reality of their much-troubled dealings.

Washington is once again caught in a “Catch 22” situation in these important bilateral arrangements. Two proposals—humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as well as the NASA project on climate change—were designed to increase the value of this much forgotten alliance.

Unfortunately, they were politicized to the point that any decent bilateral cooperation was no longer possible between the two countries. If this trend continues, which is highly likely, Bangkok will further lose its political and strategic clout as well as harming Thai-US relations and the latter’s overall strategies in the Asia-Pacific.

Indeed, the US can choose to ignore Thailand at its own peril. To sustain the US rebalancing effort in the region, all alliances must be functioning and operational. At the moment, the Thai-US alliance is an aberration and remains the weakest link in the security chain.

For a better outcome at the Center for Strategic and International Studies forum, Campbell could have urged Thailand to come out with clear indications what was to be expected from the Thai-US relationship over the months and years to come.

Washington’s attitude is that until Thailand can overcome it own domestic divides, especially those pertaining to the alliance’s obligations, there is nothing much the US can do. Some strategists have argued that the US does not need to rely on Thailand, its key ally during the Cold War, as much as before due to Washington’s success repositioning itself in the Asia-Pacific over the past two years—winning new friends while reinvigorate old ones. Despite a near 180-year-old friendship, Thailand is just too unpredictable without any clear direction.

To firm up its position, the US will now engage further with the European Union as a collaborator regarding Asia akin to their joint efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere. This is an important strategic shift because the US-EU partnership on political and security matters has been previously confined to the Asean Regional Forum activities and sanctions against Burma.

Interestingly, Washington’s move comes at an interesting time regarding relations with Asean. By collaborating with the US, the EU’s position within the region seems to be further strengthened. After all, unlike their divergent policies regarding myriad global issues, the EU’s views towards the Asia-Pacific remains united. Like the US, the EU is obsessed with China both in terms of economic and political power. Both are striving to counterbalance rising China.

At this juncture, the EU’s standing in Asean is at a low point. Now with a charge of heart regarding Burma, the EU is playing catch-up with Asean as a bloc. At a recent Asean-EU ministerial meeting in Brunei, Asean literally turned down the EU’s request to issue a joint statement on Burma’s latest developments because the EU refused to end sanctions.

Worse still, Asean also snubbed EU Foreign Affairs Chief Lady Catherine Ashton’s plan to accede to a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) without following Asean’s procedural rules. The EU’s plan to join the East Asia Summit (EAS) as soon as possible would be delayed further—impeding US efforts to broaden the security agenda at the EAS.

Clearly Ashton needs to attend more Asean meetings. After years of being put-off, Britain is finally scheduled to sign a TAC in Phnom Penh this week with an eye on the EAS. Suddenly, the US has been found its friends wanting with regards dialogue partners for Asean as part of its long-term strategy to manage the rise of China.

It is also the best time for the loose US-led coalition within Asean as news from the South China Sea, after decades of benign diplomacy and neglect, generates a stream of negative headlines for China. This new psychological bulwark has already put Beijing on the offensive and it will certainly draw a response in the near future.

To break away from this encirclement from Asean, China has quickly found a natural friend in its same superpower league—Russia. Third-time President Vladimir Putin is also paying more attention to the Asia-Pacific and EAS. For the first time since it joined the leaders’ meeting of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, Moscow will play host in Vladivostok this October and will be projecting a strong message—Russia is a Pacific power and here to stay.

From now on, Moscow will be missile-zoomed at the Asean Regional and EAS forums. After two decades of inertia, Russia has mustered enough confidence to submit a new proposal to Asean on a code of conduct for Asia-Pacific to boost security cooperation—a habit the former Soviet Union used to do. Russia will discuss the proposal, for which China has expressed support, with Asean this week in Phnom Penh.

With a more assertive US, EU, China and Russia, Asean has to get its act together otherwise the fulcrum, which has made Asean valuable and attractive to world leaders, will turn into a trap with no exit strategies.

It remains to be seen how the upcoming EAS in mid-November will play out. But one thing is clear—the Asia Pacific will be the theater of contention for major global powers. For good or for worse, Asean will be on the receiving end. If Asean, with its longstanding lack of commonality on key security issues, knows how to harness and play these new great games, then the region’s stability and prosperity will continue with marginal collateral damage along the way.

This article first appeared in the Bangkok-based The Nation newspaper. Kavi Chongkittavorn is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group and his views do not necessarily reflect those of The Irrawaddy.