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ASEAN at a tipping point

ASEAN at a tipping point

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Delegates participate in an ASEAN meeting in Phnom Penh yesterday. Photograph: Meng Kimlog/Phnom Penh Post

For the audience in Washington, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell’s speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on June 26 was calculated and fitting.

Campbell stressed the US strategy in Asia and highlighted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to the region this week after a series of meetings in Phnom Penh during the ASEAN ministerial conference.

He mentioned quite a few countries in Southeast Asia that were pivotal to the US: Laos, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Myanmar and, of course, the Philippines.

The fact that Campbell forgot to mention Thailand, even though the Thai-US strategic dialogue had been held less than two weeks earlier, was a strong indication that all was not well with the Thai-US alliance.

Two proposals – on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and NASA’s climate-change project – were designed to increase the value of this oft-forgotten ally.

Unfortunately, they were politicised to the point that any decent bilateral cooperation was no longer possible between the two countries.

If this trend continues, which is highly likely, Thailand will lose more of its political and strategic clout, harming Thai-US relations and the latter’s strategies in the Asia-Pacific.

The US can choose to ignore Thailand at its own peril. To sustain the US rebalancing effort in the Asia-Pacific, all alliances must be functional and operational.

At the moment, the Thai-US alliance is an aberration, and remains the weakest link in the security chain.

For a better outcome at the forum, Campbell could have urged Thailand to come forth with clear indications on what could be expected of Thai-US relations.

Washington’s attitude is that, until and unless Thailand can overcome its domestic divides, especially those pertaining to the alliance’s obligations, there is nothing much the US can do.

Some strategists have argued that the US doesn’t need to rely on Thailand, a key ally during the Cold War, thanks to Washington’s success over the past two years in repositioning itself in the Asia-Pacific, winning new friends and re-invigorating old relationships.

To firm up its position, the US will further engage the European Union as a pivot in Asia.

This is an important strategic shift, because the US-EU partnership on political and security matters has been previously confined to ASEAN regional forum activities and sanctions against Myanmar.

By collaborating with the US, the EU’s position within the region would be further strengthened.

The EU’s stance towards the Asia-Pacific remains united.

Like America, the EU is obsessed with China in terms of economic and political power. Both want to counterbalance China.

The EU’s standing in ASEAN is at a low point. At a recent ministerial meeting in Brunei, ASEAN turned down an EU request to jointly issue a statement on Myanmar’s latest developments because the EU had refused to end sanctions.

Worse, ASEAN also snubbed Lady Catherine Ashton’s plan to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation without following the rules of procedure.

The EU’s plan to join the East Asia Summit as soon as possible will be delayed further, impeding Washington’s effort to broaden the security agenda in the summit.

After years of putting it off, Britain is scheduled to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation this week in Phnom Penh with an eye on the East Asia Summit.

Suddenly, the US has found its friends among dialogue partners and ASEAN as part of a long-term strategy to manage the rise of China.

It is also the best time for the US-led loose coalition within ASEAN, as headlines on the South China Sea, after decades of benign diplomacy and neglect, have generated a torrent of bad news and negative images of China.

This has put China on the offensive and will certainly draw a response from Beijing in the near future.

To break away from this encirclement within ASEAN, China has found a natural friend in the same league: Russia.

Vladimir Putin is also paying more attention to the Asia-Pacific and the East Asia Summit. For the first time since it joined the leaders’ meeting of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, Moscow will play the host in Vladivostok in October with a strong message: Russia is a Pacific power, and it, too, is here to stay.

After two decades of inertia, Russia has mustered enough confidence to submit a new proposal to ASEAN on a code of conduct for the Asia-Pacific to boost security cooperation.

It will discuss the plan, for which China has voiced support, with ASEAN this week in Phnom Penh.

With a more assertive US and European Union, China and Russia, ASEAN has to get its act together.

Otherwise, the fulcrum, which has made ASEAN valuable and attractive to world leaders, will turn into an entrapment with no exit strategies.

It remains to be seen how the East Asia Summit in mid-November will play out.

But one template is clear: the Asia-Pacific will become the area for major powers to show their clout. And, for good or for worse, ASEAN will be at the receiving end.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok

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