S.E.A. VIEW

Malaysia dealt a tough hand as Asean chair

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak attends the 17th Asean-China Summit during the 25th Asean Summit in Naypyitaw on Nov 13, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak attends the 17th Asean-China Summit during the 25th Asean Summit in Naypyitaw on Nov 13, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Last year was a bad year for Malaysia's international image. Its national carrier's loss of two aircraft under questionable circumstances and its clumsy, seemingly disingenuous public handling of the first incident raised doubts that Malaysia was ready for prime time.

However, for better or worse, Malaysia is the Asean chair for this year, and it will certainly have a challenging agenda full of political opportunities and risks - for Asean and for its own international reputation.

This is the year that Asean is supposed to achieve full integration as an Asean Economic Community (AEC). As underscored by Datuk Muhammad Shahrul Ikram Yaakob, director-general of the Asean-Malaysia National Secretariat: "Malaysia has immense responsibility in ensuring the implementation of the remaining action lines of the blueprints of all three pillars - political-security, economic and socio-cultural - as well as how best to conclude the road map for an Asean community."

While there may be face- saving declarations of the AEC's "arrival", the reality is that there is a lot more to do to bridge critical political and economic gaps within Asean. As Asean chair, Malaysia will be held at least partially responsible for doing so - or failing to do so.

Perhaps more important will be Malaysia's management of Asean-China relations regarding the South China Sea and the maintenance of Asean centrality in the security of the region.

While a robust Asean-China Code of Conduct remains Asean's diplomatic holy grail, it is unlikely to be achieved this year - or in the foreseeable future. That would be a difficult task for any country, but it will be particularly difficult for Malaysia because it is a prime player in the South China Sea imbroglio.

Malaysia has overlapping claims on the South China Sea with fellow Asean members Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as with China.

While it has not been as publicly outspoken and assertive as the Philippines and Vietnam in defending its claims against China's statements and actions, it has made its concerns known to China through diplomatic channels.

Moreover, it has enhanced its political and defence ties with the United States. It has joined the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative, which China opposes. Further, Malaysia is allowing the US to use its territory for the refuelling of its Poseidon submarine surveillance planes. These planes are likely searching for and tracking Chinese submarines in the South China Sea - acts that China may well consider to be unfriendly.

Malaysia's stance on the formal Philippine complaint against China has drawn public praise from senior US officials. The US National Security Council senior director for Asian affairs Evan Medeiros said Malaysia has "come out in support of the principle of international arbitration, which has been a subject of some diplomatic wrangling".

The US clearly sees Malaysia as a supporter of its ally the Philippines' position vis a vis China, and a friend in its attempt to maintain dominance in the region. China would probably prefer Malaysia to be more neutral.

As Asean chair, Malaysia is likely to be buffeted by strong diplomatic crosswinds from China and the US, as well as its respective supporters in Asean.

It will be interesting to see whether Malaysia bends and, if so, which way. It must find a "Goldilocks" position - not too fast for China and its Asean supporters, but not too slow for the Philippines and Vietnam (and the US). Even if it opts to make no progress at all rather than antagonise China or the US, stresses and strains within Asean may lead to more intra-Asean quarrelling and enhanced cleavages. This would weaken Asean's centrality in regional affairs.

The arbitration panel hearing the Philippines' complaint against China may render a verdict this year - at least on whether or not it has the jurisdiction to hear the case.

If it decides that it does or decides against China on the merits, tensions will rise as China will continue to officially ignore the process and the result, and will likely then increase pressure on the Philippines and Vietnam to negotiate with it directly. If so, Malaysia - as both Asean chair and a claimant - may find itself in a very difficult position.

Regardless of the panel's decision, the Philippines and Vietnam will continue to appeal for Asean and its members' support regarding their challenges to China's claims and actions, and the US will continue its tacit support for their position. But Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar will probably continue to demur on the matter.

Indonesia may begin to exercise some leadership within Asean and attempt to bridge the gaps between Asean and China. How will Malaysia discern and deal with such a development?

As if this agenda were not trying enough, there is always the possible surfacing of, in former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld's words, "known unknowns and unknown unknowns".

These could include a clash between China and US forces in the South China Sea or those of China and Vietnam, a major natural disaster, or worse, a man-made disaster such as a terrorist attack involving citizens of Asean members. Will Malaysia exercise effective leadership in response to such events?

I have no doubt that Malaysia has prepared long and well for its time in the spotlight and its year of trial and tribulation. Unfortunately, it is starting at somewhat of a disadvantage and has been dealt a tough hand.

But hopefully, it can rise to the occasion, drawing on its storehouse of vision and wisdom from the days of Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman and the founding of Asean. Tun Dr Ismail was Malaysia's first Foreign Minister, an early champion of a peaceful and neutral South-east Asia, a concept that eventually became Asean.

Malaysia has the opportunity to both guide the organisation forward and enhance its own international reputation. Many international actors and analysts hope for its success. The alternative - for Asean and for Malaysia - is not attractive.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is senior associate at the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability in Hawaii.

S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.