Time for Asean to act as a unified force?

A STRING of notable issues have emerged in South-east Asia in the past few months.

They include the contentious naming of an Indonesian frigate after a pair of Marines who bombed a civilian target in Singapore in 1965, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, and the subsequent acrimony between China and Malaysia.

Then there is Indonesian displeasure at finding its territory around Natuna Islands being claimed by Beijing and the Philippine decision to report China to an international tribunal over alleged territorial incursions in the South China Sea.

These may appear to be entirely separate episodes involving different member countries of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean). But they can also be seen as highlighting the inadequacies of the current level of cooperation between member states.

Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, for example, appear to be fending off pressure from Beijing on their own. This is despite the fact that a unified Asean front may be more advantageous. Perhaps it is time for a thorough rethink about how Asean can better manage the crucial issues facing member states.

It is becoming increasingly evident that strong economic and cultural ties are no longer adequate for an organisation that seeks to represent its 10 member states on the international stage.

One of the core problems within Asean is the lack of trust between member states. The continuing spate of arguments between Singapore and Indonesia over the Usman Harun incident is an apt example.

Singapore, owing to its geographical size and location, has every reason to feel apprehensive about Indonesia, considering the latter's policy of Konfrontasi during the 1960s. Konfrontasi was a traumatic episode in the history of Singapore, something that the recent naming of an Indonesian frigate has revived.

Yet, whether or not Singapore's concerns about Jakarta's motives are justifiable, Asean remains the only regional institution capable of ensuring continued cooperation and peace.

A certain level of unease also exists between Indonesia and Malaysia.

Hence, when Malaysia frantically started searching for the missing MH370 flight, the Indonesian navy was not exactly one of the first to offer assistance. This was despite that fact that there were 12 Indonesian nationals among the flight's passengers.

Initially spearheaded by Singapore, a concerted search and rescue effort finally began, with other Asean countries, namely Indonesia and Vietnam, subsequently taking part.

However, no visible Asean banner was evident in what should have been an act of solidarity involving all member states.

The lack of progress in the search and rescue efforts has also strained relations between China and Malaysia. Intriguingly, no other Asean country apart from Singapore has so far defended Malaysia's performance.

The MH370 incident shows that a permanent Asean peace-keeping and emergency force is long overdue.

At the very least, with the Asean Single Aviation Market due to be implemented next year, a unified Asean air space and border agency seems to be in order.

Such a task force could also play an important role in supporting member countries with territorial disputes with entities outside Asean.

The fact that both Indonesia and the Philippines appear to be standing alone against Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea exposes yet another flaw in Asean solidarity.

History shows that Malaysia is an interested party in these disputes. However, in an effort to maintain good relations with Beijing, it has opted to remain silent. This action has been to the detriment of other Asean nations involved in the dispute.

Indonesia and the Philippines alone may not hope to match the bargaining power of the new giant China.

But Asean, as the world's eighth largest economic bloc, may just prove to have sufficient weight to face Beijing on more equal terms.

This is why it is high time that Asean member states respond positively to today's emerging issues. The old unwritten rule that diplomats should avoid difficult issues at Asean summits is no longer appropriate.

The new balance of power mandates a new approach, and indeed a new means, for South-east Asian nations to defend their common interests.

Instead of bickering over issues that undermine unity, Asean member countries must move forward as a unified force. Bolstering trust and solidarity is essential to the foundation on which new forms of cooperation and integration can be built.

Perhaps it is about time the Asean states considered forming a military alliance. Admittedly, this would be a tremendously difficult issue.

Merely discussing the possibility would resurrect all the old fears member states have about each other. But it is perhaps a growing pain that Asean must live with in order to progress.

Common interests have presented South-east Asian nations with new reasons to unite. Complex issues ranging from economic to territorial disputes, and even an aviation tragedy, affect the region on a daily basis. And the way Asean responds to these issues will determine the extent to which it remains relevant.

It is in the will of its member states that Asean's fate ultimately rests.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The author is a writer based in Surabaya, Indonesia.