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Unite to keep China in check, ASEAN told

By Nicholas Chung
News Editor, Free Malaysia Today (FMT)
December 08, 2023
China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea and has been involved in territorial disputes and intrusions in the maritime region, straining ties with neighbouring countries including the Southeast Asian nations of the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. The economic powerhouse has also encroached into parts of Malaysia’s exclusive economic zones near Sabah and Sarawak.

In view of this, two political scientists from Japan say ASEAN nations need to put aside their differences and unite in order to keep China in check and safeguard their interests in the region.

International political economy professor Tsutomu Kikuchi of Aoyama Gakuin University said there is inevitably some price to pay for ASEAN to play a central and dominant role as a regional institution, especially in dealing with China. In this respect, ASEAN appears unwilling to share some costs in order to sustain its central role in Southeast Asia, which Kikuchi added is evolving with global shifts.

He cited the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Philippines’ favour in 2016, finding China’s claims in the South China Sea, including the nine-dash line, unlawful.

“This is a decision by the international court. Among ASEAN countries, which one of them actively supports the Philippines? In my understanding, the other ASEAN countries have kept quiet. But if ASEAN is serious about maintaining rules-based international order, they should support the (international court’s) decision. Of course, this may cause some problems with China, but it’s a cost that must be shared by ASEAN countries. Maintaining some stand on the law is not cost-free,” he said in an interview with FMT.

Kikuchi believes China would have greater respect for ASEAN if it displays stronger determination and stands on such issues, adding that it is not solely about Malaysia taking a stand, for example, but ASEAN collectively.

Akio Takahara, a contemporary Chinese politics professor at the University of Tokyo, said ASEAN nations have many shared interests, even in the South China Sea, though some might not be directly impacted. While nations like Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia are not affected by the maritime dispute, Takahara said they are now facing similar issues with China concerning the diversion of water from dams along the Mekong river.

“ASEAN should share notes and find a common way to deal with China. I’m not saying you have to have a better ability to fight China, but find a way to coexist and realise your respective interests peacefully. The key is unity, you have to put your voices together,” he said.

Despite its extensive economic influence over Southeast Asia, Takahara believes Beijing would not withdraw its economic presence just because ASEAN chooses to be outspoken against China over certain issues. He described the Chinese government as being “very pragmatic”, enabling ASEAN to deal with China’s actions in their territories “without losing much” and still “gaining a lot”.

He cited ASEAN’s response to China in 1995 when the latter occupied the Mischief Reef in the South China Sea. ASEAN’s respective foreign ministers had protested the move without explicitly naming Beijing, which Takahara said caught Beijing by surprise. While China did not withdraw from the Mischief Reef, there was a distinct change in its attitude at the ASEAN regional forum.

He also pointed out how foreign ministers of ASEAN nations had gathered in 2010 and jointly criticised China over the South China Sea issue, sparking a sharp response from then Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi.

“The Chinese foreign minister then kind of lost control and started to say how ‘there are big countries and small countries in this room’, while staring at the Singaporean foreign minister. So it’s important to unite and put your voices together when these things (like stand-offs and intrusions in the South China Sea) happen. China can be pressured into thinking they need to be careful when dealing with Southeast Asian nations.”
a picture of Japanese intellectuals
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