Asean and rising China looking for win-win solution: The Jakarta Post columnist

A child waving a Chinese flag during the daily flag lowering ceremony at sunset in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
A child waving a Chinese flag during the daily flag lowering ceremony at sunset in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.PHOTO: AFP

Ong Keng Yong

The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

The international order is undergoing structural change, not just from the rise of emerging economies, but from the way technologies, social and mobile are revolutionising the way information flows within and between societies.

We live at a turning point in history, full of promise but also of danger. We are seeing a resurgence of hard nationalism, a backlash against the globalisation and the liberal global order.

Voters everywhere are confounding all previous expectations in voting against existing institutions and dominant elites. Social media has also become a factor in international relations.

It is in this context that the countries of Asean face a rising China.

China's rise is the biggest geopolitical phenomenon of our time.

Since the start of Chinese reforms 35 years ago, China has moved from the periphery to the center of the global economy.

Its economy is 60 times larger than it was in 1980. It is the largest trading partner of every country in Asean.

Economic change on such a scale, and we are barely begun on this journey, has already strained the regional strategic calculus.

It will eventually challenge the status quo. The question is not if, but when and how this challenge occurs.

There is every difference between a violent and a peaceful rise. We are in the middle of an argument not about "if" but "how".

China draws on a diplomatic history with Southeast Asians that pre-dates the age of European conquest and the formation of Southeast Asia's modern states.

It has its own traditions of statecraft and its own conception of the rules of the game. No doubt it sees the present rules as written by the West.

China has had especially bitter experience of Western and Japanese imperialism.

After 2,000 years of strategic orientation to military threats from the great plains at its continental periphery, it was forced open and humiliated not from the land, but from the sea, by maritime powers.

The determination never to repeat this complacency about maritime power, and the determination to secure the sea around it, explain China's attitude towards the South China Sea.

China may have legitimate concerns about the South China Sea and the Malacca Straits as a constrained, crowded and contested body of water at its doorstep, and whose accessibility is vital to China's security and prosperity.

It does not have the good fortune of its geopolitical rival, the United States of America, in being surrounded by open ocean.

This is a fact of geography. Instead China is joined to the ten nations of Asean by a shared sea.

Nevertheless, China integrated into the global economy and created great prosperity by playing by the rules of international trade as it found them and not as it would have liked them to be.

It prospered in a period of peace in surrounding South-east Asia buttressed by Asean neutrality, within a rules-based international order underwritten by American power.

China supported the integrity and centrality of Asean and became the first to sign a free trade agreement with Asean.

The maritime status quo, and the rules governing passage and conduct at sea, like much else in the international order, reflect a Western world order established while China and South-east Asia were weak.

Like other international institutions, they must change in time to reflect new realities.

But peaceful change calls for patience and restraint.

The question is whether that change must lead to violent conflict, as some think history predicts, or whether that change can itself be pressed through law-like conduct, with a commitment to the rule of law even as we negotiate particular claims.

China's economy has leapt ahead, but strategic primacy is a more arduous, multi-faceted attainment.

It is obtained not by force alone but by establishing strategic trust, by earning rather than demanding the confidence of allies and neighbours as well as the respect of rivals.

It is a process that will take more time and patience and diplomacy than what we have seen following the summit meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Venezuela, with recrimination being hurled at Singapore for articulating an independent position on behalf of Asean.

I fear that China's previously supportive attitude towards Asean unity may have taken its own "pivot".

China now appears contented to see Asean divided.

What happened at the NAM Summit in Venezuela was not only a challenge to Singapore, but also to the unity and integrity of Asean.

It is however not the first time Asean has been challenged.

Asean's unity and integrity was first challenged in 1975, eight years after the association was established, when North Vietnamese armed forces overran South Vietnam and raised the specter of "falling dominos".

Asean Heads of Government were galvanised to meet for the first time in Bali in 1976 and reaffirmed their unity in a Bali Concord.

Unfortunately, the hand of reconciliation Asean extended to Vietnam at that time was rejected.

Asean solidarity was challenged again in 1979 when Vietnam invaded and occupied Cambodia, bringing the specter of "falling dominos" even closer to Asean. Singapore rose to the challenge and helped mobilise its Asean partners to support the formation of a Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK).

For the next decade Singapore worked with its Asean partners to successfully lobby United Nations support for the CGDK.

With the end of the Cold War and Vietnam's withdrawal from Cambodia, Asean extended its hand of friendship to not only Vietnam, but also Cambodia and Laos, accepting them as members of the Association.

More significantly, Asean responded to the end of the Cold War and the changes in the regional security environment by forming the annual dialogues it had been having with its ten partners around the region into an Asean Regional Forum (ARF).

Today, ARF has grown, to include another seven participants for wide ranging discussions on regional security issues.

There is also the East Asia Summit where leaders of Asean and eight dialogue partners of Asean meet annually for strategic discussions and a review of their multi-faceted ties through the Asean-led mechanism.

Asean, as it approaches its 50th anniversary, has overcome a number of crises and challenges to its unity and integrity.

Developments in the South China Sea are the latest challenge to Asean solidarity. Singapore will continue to work with its Asean partners as in the past to find a "win-win" solution and co-exist peacefully with Beijing.

In doing so, the top leadership needs to initiate the moves. Not social media or petty functionary commentaries.

* The writer is former secretary-general of Asean and Executive Deputy Chairman at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore.