Forum: Asean should explore broader engagement

The survey by ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute proffered great insights into South-east Asians' perceptions of China and the United States, especially their divergence from actual data (China and the US in South-east Asian eyes, Feb 8).

This suggests that Asean, primarily a government-to-government platform, should explore broader engagement with non-governmental organisations, civil society, private sectors and Track II diplomats, to plug the necessary gaps in favourable ways.

South-east Asia experiences China's rise in more critical ways than others because it is the perfect testing ground for Beijing.

At the same time, it suffers immense pressure from the US to take its side. This fierce contest between US and China in the region should prompt Asean to formulate its own strategic course and shape the conditions through which other powers engage it.

In finding itself tightly wedged between the two powers, the best solution is for Asean to diversify. In line with what those surveyed thought, Asean should seek out "third parties" like Japan and the European Union to hedge against the uncertainties of the US-China rivalry.

With Brexit, Britain is more enthusiastic than ever to keep its footprint in the region. It should be noted that Mr Dominic Raab's first overseas visit as British Foreign Secretary was to the Asean Foreign Ministers' meeting in Bangkok last year.

Combating a similar perception that they have little stake in Asian affairs, Russia has also come together with Asean to draft a comprehensive package of measures to develop Russia-Asean cooperation from this year.

That is how Asean should continue to shape its Indo-Pacific vision - one in which it keeps participating players honest and inclusive by deepening regional integration that neither generates rival blocs and undercuts Asean arrangements nor excavates fault lines and compels member countries to take sides.

As Asean works to strengthen its links to powerful bodies beyond China and the US, it will continue to wean itself off its reliance on these two powers, thus create breathing and manoeuvring room in both political and economic spheres for itself in the new multi-polar world.

Lily Ong