9th Asian Security Conference

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  • Session V: Southeast Asia and External Powers

    Rapporteur Report
    Nivedita Das Kundu and Nivedita Ray
    February 10, 2007

    The Chairman began the session by reflecting upon the significance of the region. Given that the region is surrounded by much larger powers, it has become an arena for big power interest and historically outside powers always had a role in shaping the history, character and dynamics of the region. But at the same time, the region has not been merely an object but also a player in the economic, political and security arena. Given the importance of the region, external powers are keen to engage with it and primarily the engagement is centred on the ASEAN.

    Six papers were presented in this session on the interests of big powers in the region. The first paper presented by Zhao Ganchen provided a Chinese perspective. He highlighted the following issues:

    • China’s pursuit of partnership with ASEAN is part of its periphery strategy. It does not wish to consolidate hegemony or supremacy in the region, which is against the Chinese strategy of fostering stability. Beijing is convinced that even if India tries to play a balancing role it could be positive and it does not oppose India entering the Asia-Pacific. With China having become an observer in SAARC, it would not want to prevent an Indian entry into Southeast Asia.
    • The Sino-ASEAN relationship is not a symmetrical relationship. While China is a single nation, ASEAN represents many countries. Individually, China is much more powerful than any single ASEAN state. This has led China to adopt a two-track diplomacy – China with individual states and China with ASEAN as a group.
    • China-ASEAN ties are complimentary. The complementarities of interest are increasing not only in the economic arena but also in the political and security spheres. The positive side of the relationship is the economic engagement and the negative side is the dispute in the South China Sea and the Taiwan issue. The challenge remains to develop a positive element, which requires a build up of communication channels.
    • How China deals with other powers is also important to ASEAN because they are also the latter’s partners. In this context, China-Japan relations are crucial, which have deteriorated over the past few years. In the long run, it is expected that mature relations between China and ASEAN will pave the way for an operative security architecture that will be inclusive.

    U Than Tun of Myanmar presented a paper on “China and South East Asia: ASEAN +1 Perspective.” Some key concerns and options mentioned by him are as follows:

    • Regional security challenges are both traditional and non-traditional – terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, illegal arms trade, transnational crimes, maritime security, food security, cyber terrorism and disintegration of national unity and social unrest.
    • Solutions to security challenges include peacekeeping operations, multinational security organisations, and establishing good governance.
    • A major role for ASEAN is the preservation of the environment of peace, prosperity and stability in the Asia-Pacific to enhance mutual trust and confidence among the ARF.
    • China prefers to keep the ARF moving at its current pace and maintains that the ARF should focus on consolidating its CBM agenda.

    Jonathan Pollock, in his paper, “The United States and South East Asia: In Search of a Strategy,” highlighted the following issues:

    • The US continues to grapple with the question of where exactly Southeast Asia fits in its long-term strategy.
    • Three concerns dominate – unhampered movements of goods, identifying and dealing with threats of terrorism, political security implications in terms of China’s influences in the region.
    • The question of US and Southeast Asia reconciling their interests and preferences in relation to regional security, terrorism and the long term role of China.

    Victor Sumsky spoke on Southeast Asia in the context of Russian national interests, and mentioned the following points:

    • Russia’s role in the region in the 21st century is less visible than those of most external players, marked as it is with low volumes of trade and investment and lack of soft power to propel economic interaction. Politically it is engaged with ASEAN as a full dialogue partner, as a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum, a signatory to the Bali Treaty (2004) and through the forum of the ASEAN-Russia Summit (2005).
    • A stronger position for Russia in the region is a justified choice for more than one reason. Russia has to be economically engaged with the region and some trends that unfold today in Southeast Asia have implications beyond the region and touch upon Russia’s national interests.
    • China’s Peace Offensive (CPO), interrelated economic, political and military moves plus skilful public relations have led to a major improvement in its regional standing. India’s Look East policy is legitimate in itself and is being encouraged by the ASEAN as a healthy counterbalance to CPO, though it also creates possibilities for China-India regional rivalry. The United States seems to be engaged in curbing CPO by involving its closest partners – and India – in China’s containment and pulling ASEAN away from the Chinese orbit.
    • ASEAN has not fully recovered from the Asian financial crisis and is torn between the United States and China. It faces the danger of being eclipsed by bigger external players on its home ground.
    • China’s focus on Southeast Asia does not imply an end to its activities in the post-Soviet space. To meet this challenge, Russia must develop Siberia and the Far East and needs more interaction with East and Southeast Asia.
    • As regards to Russia and the dangers of a US-China rivalry in Southeast Asia, he stated that it is not the problem of its making and so it is not up to it to offer solutions. Russia’s possible response is a diplomacy that, looking utterly neutral, is basically directed against the rocking of the status quo boat.
    • China-India rivalry in Southeast Asia is another problem not of Russia’s making, but of real interest to it. A rift between China and India in the region would damage themselves, the region, the world – and Russia as the strategic partner of both nations.
    • Russia, China and India do not have a shared interest in a strong ASEAN. Neither Russia as the core CIS state, nor China as the promoter of EAC, nor India as the core member of SAARC, nor all three as participants in the SCO should be passive about the prospect of ASEAN’s weakening, and Southeast Asian issues should be added to the trilateral dialogue agenda between the three.
    • To improve its regional status, Russia should correct imbalances between politics and economics by implementing the ASEAN-Russia comprehensive co-operation programme and speed up implementation of energy and infrastructure projects that will contribute to development and stability of Russia while drawing it closer to East and Southeast Asia.

    Stein Tonnesson presented a paper on Conflict Resolution or Joint development in the South China Sea. He reflected upon the following points and issues:

    • While the dispute is about sovereignty over islands, military installations, maritime delimitation, fishing rights, oil and gas concessions, what is actually at stake are security of sea lanes, navel strategy, the use of islands to bolster zone claims, oil and gas, fish, marine ecosystems, the Taiwan issue, and national pride.
      The dispute in the South China Sea is quite dangerous and needs to be solved. But disputes at sea are less dangerous than those on land. There seems to be little danger of violent incidents at present, but concerns remain that this state of affairs might change if oil is found?
    • The Paracels and Spratlys are of very limited economic and strategic value. China behaves less aggressively than many have feared. Exploration for oil has been disappointing – security of sea-lanes is far more important, certainly for China, than the prospect of finding oil under the seabed.
    • The fact that all states concerned have ratified the Laws of the Sea convention provides a legal basis for conflict resolution. None of the Spratlys can have a continental shelf or EEZ. National baselines should be drawn more conservatively. Despite its complexity, the dispute may very well be resolved if there is political will to do so.
    • Six different stages through which the disputes could be resolved are: 1) Bilateral treaty with Vietnam on the delimitation of the Tonkin Gulf and fisheries agreement. 2) Some kind of co-operation with Taiwan, which has the same claims as the PRC in the South China Sea on behalf of all of China, perhaps even form a joint negotiation team. 3) A small bargain with the Philippines over Scarborough Reef – in order to set a precedent. 4) A big bargain on the Spratlys and Paracels. 5) Redraw baselines or agree on base points to be used as a basis for measuring maritime zone claims and on that basis draw the borders between all EEZ’s and leave only a small doughnut of high Seas in the middle.

    Ronald Huisken presented a paper titled “Southeast Asia: Major Power Playground or Finishing School?” and drew attention to the following issues and concerns:

    • The challenges that ASEAN faces presently are concentrated in Beijing. Chinese are very long term players. China needs to engage in the activities evenly in the region.
    • ASEAN needs to change the historical patterns, proclaiming itself to be in the driver’s seat and leading an endeavour to bring all the major powers with significant interests in the region into some form of harmonious balance as this attempt would fine-tune the geopolitical aspects to measure it successfully.