Asean caught between dragon and rising sun

China and Japan are wooing individual Asean member states as never before. But Asean must stay united to maintain its bargaining power and regional peace.

NEVER before in the history of Asean have its members been pursued by major powers like jaguars going after their prey.

Today, Japan and China are wooing Asean simultaneously, causing not only high anxiety but also a serious policy dilemma. This circumstance has already driven a wedge through the grouping's unity. In the long run, the repercussions could be far-reaching, affecting the broader East Asian economic cooperation and prosperity.

Under this new political landscape, the mantra of "siding with none" among major powers has gradually lost its relevance. These powers are more eager than ever to pick their preferred partners. Do the 10 Asean members have a choice? If so, what would be the best way to engage the two Asian giants in a way that does not harm their individual and collective interests?

Earlier concerns about the impact of US-China competition on Asean's external relations have abated, once it became clear that the two superpowers have a strategic interest in a mutually beneficial relationship. Asean's concern quickly turned to Japan-China ties and the lingering Diaoyu/ Senkaku Islands dispute.

Chill down Asean's spine

TENSIONS between China and Japan, reaching a near-war conflict temperature, have immediate implications for Asean.

Asean may have become accustomed to bickering between Japan and China over past historical experiences and maritime disputes, believing this would fade away in response to the need to preserve regional prosperity and stability. However, with nationalistic sentiments rising in both countries, all that has changed. And this new attitude is sending a chill down Asean's spine.

Geographic distance makes it easier for Asean to manoeuvre its way around US-China rivalry. But Asean is caught smack in the middle when it comes to Sino-Japan conflict. The two countries are not only neighbours but also major players in numerous regional schemes that affect investment and trade.

Now, security issues have been added to the mix. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's third Asean trip in six months is the clearest indication of Japan's desire to transform its longstanding economic relationship into a more encompassing strategic one. This means stronger security relations with individual Asean members, especially those with maritime security concerns.

After he became Prime Minister for the second time last December, Mr Abe moved quickly to consolidate Japan's friendship with Asean. No other Japanese leader in post-war history, since Mr Takeo Fukuda's heart-to-heart diplomacy in 1977, has paid such extraordinary attention to Asean.

Over the past four decades, Asean-Japan ties have focused on economic progress and bridging the regional development gap. The end of the Indochina War, the Cambodian peace and the enlargement of Asean allowed Japan to increase its investment in Asean and expand production chains. This contributed to regional economic prosperity and integration.

But the post-war regional environment enjoyed by Japan has changed, due to the rise of China and increased US-China economic and strategic dynamics. New security and strategic factors have begun to influence Japan's bilateral relationship with Asean. This is something new and untested for pacifist Japan. Tokyo's past security cooperation with Asean was confined to the Asean Regional Forum, and focused on non-traditional security areas.

Divergent responses

QUITE naturally, Asean countries have had different policy responses to Japan's overtures.

Some have quickly embraced them, while others have been reluctant. Within Asean, the Philippines and Vietnam were quick to welcome Japan's efforts to strengthen maritime security cooperation and transform them into multifaceted strategic partners. Manila in particular is eager to strengthen its maritime security arrangements with Tokyo. The latter now includes long-term coast guard capacity building, including patrols with Japanese vessels. The list will certainly expand in future.

In contrast, Thailand - the first Asean nation to discuss maritime security cooperation with Japan in 1988 - is extremely reluctant to sign on to such cooperation, fearing it would undermine burgeoning Thai-China ties. During Mr Abe's visit to Thailand on his first trip to Asean in January, the issue was dropped from the official agenda, much to the chagrin of the Japanese side. Lest we forget, both are key US allies.

While Thai-Japan relations remain unshakable for now, the new security environment, with China playing a more assertive role, will prove challenging for Thai diplomats. Already, Japan is reassessing its ties with Thailand. Even after the Thai government's repeated requests for investment loans, Japan has so far given only verbal commitments to help develop the US$8.6 billion (S$10.8 billion) deep sea port project at Dawei, one of Thailand's top priority projects.

Asean+3 relations

MORE than Asean officials would like to admit, the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands could have a serious spillover effect on Asean's relations with its East Asian neighbours or Asean+3. This group comprises the 10 Asean members plus China, Japan, and South Korea. If tensions between China and Japan persist, there could be a delay in the implementation of the Asean-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement, which is giving impetus to the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. South Korea, itself having a border dispute with Japan over Dokdo/ Takeshima Islands, is tilting towards China.

The Asean+3 cooperation will not and cannot proceed with maritime disputes dominating prime- time news in their respective countries. If this situation continues, Asean will find it increasingly hard to relate to the tripartite discussions. Asean has already experienced internal difficulty dealing with various positions on the South China Sea conflict. In the past, after Asean reached a consensus, no member would challenge what was agreed on. Now, some members are going their own way, disregarding the Asean consensus. Soon, Asean will have to deal with the Japan-China maritime dispute as well.

After suffering diplomatic setbacks last year, Asean-China ties have been improving. Like Japan, China has made Asean a foreign policy priority. Chinese leaders visited Asean three times during the first half of this year. New Foreign Minister Wang Yi also visited key Asean members during his first overseas trip.

Beijing is also hosting a special foreign ministerial meeting at the end of this month to mark the 10th anniversary of its strategic partnership with Asean. Likewise, Tokyo will host the Japan-Asean summit in mid-December to commemorate the 40th anniversary of relations.

In early July in Bandar Seri Begawan, Asean and China agreed to proceed with the code of conduct on the South China Sea - a barometer of the comfort level felt by both sides and their willingness to work together. But this road will be fraught with uncertainty. This is partly because Asean members are no longer on the same page as China. China has become more selective in singling out friendly and unfriendly Asean countries.

Asean needs a new road map to navigate between Japan and China. Its best option is for members to stick together as much as they can. This is a huge challenge.

The two Asian giants have chosen their preferred partners according to their respective economic and security imperatives, and rapidly built on these relations. However, it is not too late for Asean to do the soul-searching needed to keep up. Asean must adhere to the Asean Charter and its security blueprint.

This charter clearly spells out the principles of shared commitment and collective responsibilities. It also provides for enhanced consultations on matters seriously affecting the common interests. Failure to keep to the Asean Charter now will erode Asean's bargaining power and damage regional peace.

The writer is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group in Thailand, which publishes the English language daily, The Nation.

By Invitation features expert views from opinion leaders in the region and Singapore.