Time to focus on ASEAN rather than obsess about the 'US or China' question

20 December 2017

Each day we are confronted with the reality of nuclear weapons, cybercrime, population pressures, terrorism, humanitarian crises and antagonising tweets from a certain world leader.

This unsettling list seems endless.

Tensions with North Korea or conflict in the South China Sea remind us that the ideological divide of the Cold War lingers.

As these pressures simmer with greater intensity each day, the fear of potential regional eruption feels increasingly real.

Yet in these volatile times, understanding of our complex global landscape is needed to counterbalance the current tide of populism and parochialism.

A range of voices, not just from the West but from around the region are needed to develop a reliable and flexible security architecture.

And the foundations of this architecture cannot be built without multilateral diplomacy and inter-regional dialogue

Recently senior diplomats from around the region, including from South East Asia, North Korea, China, as well as foreign policy experts across academia and Think Tanks gathered in Chiang Mai for the 2017 Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) 11th General Conference. CSCAP, a track two organisation develops security policy recommendations for track one organisations such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus Forum.

The conference provided an avenue into Asian thinking and explored a range of pressing global challenges.

Thailand’s former Foreign Minister spoke of an increasingly powerful China and the decline of the UN.

“Emerging China was a positive, but now we have an erupting China which is complicating the global security arena,” said the former Minister.

He also spoke of his disappointment of the UN, particularly clear with their inaction in the South China Sea.

Differing views on the influence and ownership of a “rules based order” were also debated.

Audiences asked the question, today who sets these rules? In the past, after World War Two, they were set by the West but that time is changing.

The West needs to pay attention to this.

Of all the diverse views, there was one reoccurring message championed among participants.

Despite the world’s obsession with the US-China rivalry, multilateral arrangements such as ASEAN still have an important role in ensuring geo-political order.

One prominent South East Asia journalist stated, “If you make mistakes with ASEAN, you will not go very far. China realises this, but China’s engagement with ASEAN is still a work in progress”.

Leading Asian Studies scholar and Australia CSCAP Co-Chair, Professor Anthony Milner responded to the conference – and to views expressed at the recent ASEAN-AUS-NZ dialogue in Kuala Lumpur – noting that, “Australia can no longer lean on the US alliance. We absolutely must build constructive relations across this region, and do so without alienating unnecessarily our massive economic partner, China.

“Of course we have been working on Asian relations over a long period, but very much in the context of the US alliance. Attending these conference and dialogues reminds us that we might need now to listen more to our neighbours, and even modify our policies to make them more palatable”.

Listening to various Asian perspectives encourages Professor Milner to be cautious about the term “Indo-Pacific” and the stress on quadrilateral cooperation.

 “The quadrilateral (US, India, Japan and Australia) is often seen as provocative concept. It goes against ASEAN preferences and is seen as hostile by China. Our stress on the Indo-Pacific also needs careful assessment, taking into account Chinese and ASEAN views. We should either back away from the quadrilateral and 'Indo-Pacific' or put much effort into explaining these preferences to suspicious regional partners,” said Milner.

Professor Milner is pleased that the recent White Paper stresses ASEAN relations but says there is much work to be done, including listening carefully to ASEAN policy viewpoints.

 “We have been preoccupied too long with the question of 'the US or China'. ASEAN is the region closest to Australia and the area where we have the longest track record. But Australia is getting smaller in relative terms vis-a-vis ASEAN countries, and we have neglected Southeast Asia with respect to ministerial visits, business investment and Australian public discussion. Australia's wider influence will be enhanced by a highly effective engagement with ASEAN,” said Milner

Find out more about Australian member committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (Aus-CSCAP).

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Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team