Asean should remain neutral in its China policy: The Jakarta Post

Country flags from members of Asean are displayed in a conference room at the Prime Minister's Office Building Complex in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei where the 22nd Asean Summit was held.
Country flags from members of Asean are displayed in a conference room at the Prime Minister's Office Building Complex in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei where the 22nd Asean Summit was held. PHOTO: ST FILE

In its editorial on Oct 27, the paper urges Beijing to sign a 'code of conduct' on South China Sea with Asean to ensure peace in the region.

The rise of China, politically and economically, these last 20 years has compelled all countries that have relations with Beijing to realign their foreign policy to fit with the emerging geopolitical environment.

The more intense the relations, and the closer a country is to China geographically, the more important it is to make the right kind of adjustments. Indonesia is struggling to do just that, as are all other South-east Asian countries.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte went the furthest when he announced in Beijing last week that he was cutting traditional ties with the US in favour of better relations with China. Putting his brash style aside, the message is clear that Duterte wants Manila to pursue a China policy that is more independent from the US, which is historically its most important ally.

Here are some new realities for South-east Asian countries to consider in formulating their foreign policy: China is their largest trading partner, a major source of investment and increasingly foreign aid. This is happening as the US, and to a lesser extent Japan, sees its role and importance in this part of the world declining, certainly relative to that of China.

Here is another reality check: China has become more assertive with regard to its territorial claims in the South China Sea, putting it head to head with a number of Southeast Asian countries that also have claims in the resource-rich waters. The rise of China is anything but peaceful.

Countries need to move cautiously in coming up with the right China policy that serves their national interests but does not sacrifice their integrity or upset the elephant in the room.

After winning a case against China at the international Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in July, Duterte decided to put aside the victory completely and travelled to Beijing last week to open negotiations for access to the Spratly Islands, the area that the two countries are contesting. Beijing never recognised the arbitration ruling, so it would have been pointless for Manila to push the line about the illegality of China's activities in the disputed territory.

Time will tell whether this is the right approach for the Philippines. Going independent, or non-aligned in Indonesian diplomatic parlance, has its risks and benefits.

International relations should never be about a zero-sum game that an alliance usually implies. It should not be about "you are either with us or against us," which has become all too familiar in diplomacy. An alliance is almost always formed to fight against an enemy, a cause, or an ideology. In today's Asia, the US has been forging alliances as a containment strategy for China.

South-east Asian countries should be able to forge relations with all powers according to their national interests. They should not be forced to choose between aligning with one power or the other, including in formulating their China policy.

Beijing can help by engaging with Asean, of which Indonesia and the Philippines are members, to conclude negotiations on a code of conduct for countries to settle their disputes in the South China Sea.

In crafting their China policy, countries have to constantly guess at the direction and mood of leaders in Beijing. Signing a code of conduct would at least ensure that peace will prevail as everyone comes to terms with a more assertive China.