Canberra, 12 February 2013
South East Asia is made up of a number of nations, most of them geographically of small to medium size and varying in economic development from being poor to developing and to growing, if such an economic continuum can be coined. The disparities in development and standard of living between the nations are visible at a glance. However, there are two commonalities that unite these otherwise dissimilar and disparate nations. One, all of them, other than Thailand, were colonies of European nations until the end of World War II; and two, they tend to prefer negotiated settlements for all bilateral and multilateral issues including border disputes and do not have a proclivity to resort to the use of military force. Further, territorial disputes between two nations are very clearly considered bilateral issues and a third party intervention is neither welcomed nor is it commonly attempted. These are important traits to understand because they form the foundation of the peaceful coexistence of these nations, even as the rest of the developing world is in the throes of armed conflict, insurgencies and even civil war or at least on the verge of entering armed conflict. It is under these benign beliefs that the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was formed. However, after decades of peaceful development, the nations are now facing a situation that could gradually increase strategic tensions in the region that is likely to spill over into ASEAN.
ASEAN is a geo-political and economic organisation, which was formed on 8 August 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Since then the membership has grown to ten nations with Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam joining the organisation. The organisation has adopted the following as its guiding principles:
·         Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity of all nations;
·         The right of every nation to have a national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion;
·         Non-interference in internal affairs;
·         Settlement of differences and disputes in a peaceful manner;
·         Renunciation of the threat or use of force; and
·         Effective regional cooperation.
The fact that the build-up of tensions is the result of actions by more powerful nations who are not part of the SE Asian region is indicative of the limited strategic stature of the states that make up the region. This lack of ability to influence and shape their own region must be galling to the ASEAN states, especially so when considering that they are part of the stable economic bloc that is expected to become the global economic engine. However, that is how international politics have always played out—the more powerful nations will act to preserve their preeminent status irrespective of the angst that these actions cause to the less powerful or downright powerless nations of the world. [This not to suggest or even hint at the ASEAN nations being powerless, but to indicate that when global powers decide to do something they will go ahead and do it irrespective of the power resident in other nations.] The US pivot to the Asia-Pacific, for whatever strategic reason; China’s increased belligerence in dealing with what it perceives as disputes over its territorial claims; India’s attempts at becoming a regional power; and the reaction of the more powerful of the SE Asian states to these activities have all combined to create and highlight a certain amount of anxiety in the region. There are three developments that could become ‘pressure points’ to make the region convulse and create strategic uncertainty both in the short and long term.
Polarisation of Regional Nations
The peaceful coexistence of the nations of the region is directly threatened by Chinese actions aimed at establishing their hegemony over island chains that are also claimed by other nations, making them disputed territories. These conflicting claims cannot be resolved through unilateral action—as China believes it can—even though the contesting nations have a great disparity in their ability to enforce a claim through the use of military force. It is obvious that no nation will let its sovereignty be callously pushed aside by even the most powerful of nations. In the contemporary politico-security scenario the smaller nations have recourse to international courts and other bodies to argue their case, although occupation of a disputed area by a large power may not be physically contested. There are two major fallouts of China’s offensive stance. One is that there is an arms race developing in the region with all nations building at least a minimum level of sea denial capability because of the maritime geography of the region. The economically more stable nations are in the process of developing their power projection capabilities and there is now a prevalent feeling of having to develop military power, to the extent possible and affordable, so that national interests do not become vulnerable. Considering that a number of SE Asian nations have a large percentage of their populations living below poverty level, excessive spending on military hardware will obviously be detrimental to domestic socio-economic development.
The second fallout emanates from the first, with the arms race creating divisive effect within ASEAN itself. In the current geo-political circumstances of the region it is not inconceivable that ASEAN could face a factional split with some nations gathering as a group within the broader organisation and exerting pressure to steer it in a particular direction. While such manoeuvres are perhaps already being undertaken covertly, the arms race has the potential to bring it out in the open. Such a situation will only add to the pressure on ASEAN to continue as a reasonably powerful and influential regional body that has so far been a healing rather than a divisive entity. In an indirect manner, a regional arms race could well start the gradual loss of status and subsequent unravelling of ASEAN. 
The second development that has a potentially divisive element in it is the US pivot towards the region. US statesmen have been very careful to state that the pivot is aimed across the entire region, even coining the term Indo-Pacific to indicate the geographic spread of their interest. However, the focus is on the SE Asian region and the attempt is to counter China’s growing economic influence in the region. During the Cold War it was the fear of Communist encroachment that kept the US engaged in the region. This political objective has now been replaced by economic necessity and pragmatism. The nations of the SE Asian region can be very clearly divided into two groups—ones that are aligned with China and dependent on its largess for economic stability such as Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar; and others who have territorial disputes with China and therefore are in a confrontational mode with it. It is not difficult to imagine the second group rapidly aligning with the US as and when the US presence in the region becomes more preponderant. There could be nothing more disruptive to the smooth functioning of ASEAN than the coalescing of these two groups into rigid entities with perceived national interests at stake. Even if the US was undertaking a conscious realignment of strategic priorities, it should have been done without the fanfare that has accompanied it. A gradual and unobtrusive move, rather than a sharp pivot that is being envisaged, would have better facilitated the development of bilateral relationship between the US and the regional nations and would not have been as divisive as it has become at the moment.
Impact of Information Dissemination
Until a few decades ago most of the SE Asian nations suffered from being ‘closed’ societies where news travelled slowly and information was heavily censored. The combination of the global information revolution and the broad democratisation of the nations of the region have led to considerable freedom of the press and media as well as to the open availability of telecommunications. In the last few decades the press and the media have become important institutions in SE Asia. The constraints that the media functioned under in the more restrictive regimes of the past have gradually eased and given way to much greater freedom of the press, something that could not have been taken for granted not so long ago. The governments of the region are only now realising the power of the media in forming and moulding public opinion and in turn the power of public opinion to shape the agenda of the government and influence its policies.
It can be very clearly seen now that public opinion influences even the foreign policies of nations, especially the ones that are ruled by democratically elected governments. Electoral politics has a separate nuance to it and the successful political parties and their leaders are extremely aware of it. For example, the Indonesian government is being pressured by public opinion to support and adopt an increasingly Islamic agenda in the formulation of its policies. While the government, to its credit, has so far been circumspect regarding the Islamic agenda, some of the decisions that will have to be taken in the near future could turn out to be opposed to Great Power interests and therefore could place the nation in an awkward position within the international community. The domestic compulsions of electoral politics and external dealings of the nation to improve its potential and prosperity need not always be aligned. When there is a misalignment between the two, there will always be palpable tension within the internal polity of the nation. Similarly other nation of SE Asia are also facing a situation of having to deal more frequently with public opinion that at times does not accommodate or is not considerate of the broader well-being of the nation vis-à-vis its diplomatic relations with other nations and other international dealings. While this is not peculiar to the nations of SE Asia, these post-colonial nations have limited experience in dealing with a completely free media. The increasing freedom of the press and its ability to create and nurture public opinion will continue to have a direct impact on SE Asian politics and can contribute towards diluting the power of the government to rule effectively.
Tensions in the South China Sea
There are palpable tensions in the South China Sea, brought about through conflicting claims of islands between China and other nations. While these overlapping territorial claims have so far generally been bilateral, the member nations of ASEAN who are involved harbour an underlying feeling that the other unaffected members are not in full support of their stance. While this feeling could be exaggerated, there is some truth to it—the nations of ASEAN deal with China in different individual ways and would be reluctant to upset their relationship, especially when they are heavily dependent on China for their economic prosperity. This has already caused dissention within ASEAN, which is only going to increase. Although ASEAN is not a security oriented grouping, there is an implicit expectation within the members that in case of an external threat to any one of them, the bloc would stand as one, at least in principle and ethics. The divisiveness of the tensions in the South China Sea is open for all to see.
The situation is exacerbated by the entry of Russia and the US as observers into the East Asia summit. The nations that support these powers will provide further impetus to the move away from the ASEAN collective and undermine the cohesion of the association. In the long-term, this can only be detrimental to the wellbeing of the region. Most of the nations, perhaps with the exception of Indonesia, do not have the stand alone capacity needed to develop at the rate at which they have managed to do so within the collective ASEAN model. They now have to be careful to ameliorate the oncoming possibility of a division within ASEAN and ensure that the organisation not only survives but is able to continue to function as an overarching umbrella for the economic protection of the smaller SE Asian nations. The ‘China factor’ seems to make this impossible to achieve, at least for the time being. China seems to be consciously trying to undermine the cohesion of ASEAN so that it can deal with each nation bilaterally, wherein they will then be able to pressurise the smaller nation to accept terms and conditions conducive to China’s strategic purposes. The tensions generated in the South China Sea are only the beginning of the Chinese interventionist approach to the region.
ASEAN has so far managed to hold together a group of nations with disparate political ethos and developmental needs. The forceful entry of China into the region and its belligerent attitude in territorial disputes has sowed the seeds of dissention in ASEAN both directly and indirectly. Whether this fallout was incidental and unintentional or thought through and done on purpose is open to debate. The fact remains that the current circumstances are very conducive to one or more nations of the region adopting unilaterism as a way forward, which would be the first nail in the coffin of ASEAN!    

About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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