Asean should use its neutrality to advantage

China's growing denouncement of protectionism and unilateralism appears to be just a short-sighted game of one-upmanship against the United States presidency of Mr Donald Trump, especially when its unilateral objection to the general consensus among Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation members to combat protectionism reportedly hijacked the issuance of a communique by the group (China blames protectionism for discord in Apec; Nov 21).

This contradiction merely reinforces the impression of China as a complex country with many faces.

Commentators who simply cast America's Indo-Pacific strategy as a containment of China's rise are missing the whole array of dynamics at play.

Rather, the ongoing conflict between the US and China has already evolved into one between countries and economies which seek to uphold the current rules-based order and those that aim to disrupt and rewrite the rules to further their core interests.

Such an awkward modus vivendi has inadvertently placed the world at a crossroads between the integrity of an open and inclusive architecture of enlightened self-interests and the machinations of self-serving ones.

It is best for the rest who reject the notion that might is right to come together and take multilateralism, based on a respect for international law, forward.

For Asean centrality to remain relevant to all its partners, the bloc must develop more teeth and bite as a neutral and honest broker.

Asean can and should take the lead to evolve the East Asia Summit into an Indo-Pacific forum of security talks and cooperation, as well as build the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership into a key feature of its multi-platforms for economic partnership spanning the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Toh Cheng Seong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2018, with the headline 'Asean should use its neutrality to advantage'. Print Edition | Subscribe