The Secretary-General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Surin Pitsuwan, wrote an op-ed for Project Syndicate on June 13, which the Inquirer carried a couple of days ago. In the said piece, Mr. Pitsuwan wrote that “in geopolitical terms, ASEAN is well-placed to be an acceptable and equal partner to many larger, more powerful economies, such as China, India, Japan, Australia, and South Korea;” and that “ASEAN is emerging as the fulcrum of geopolitical stability in Asia. What could have otherwise been a liability – ASEAN’s diversity – was transformed into an asset that has set the benchmark for regional integration in a troubled and complex world.”
As usual, Mr. Pitsuwan, like many die-hard fans of the ASEAN, including many in the Philippine media and the Left who have been calling for Manila to drop its alliance with Washington and seek the protection instead of an ASEAN umbrella, is being too optimistic. Sure, in terms of economic and political leverage, the ASEAN as a whole may have been an equal of China ten years ago, which is why President Fidel V. Ramos was able to rally it against Beijing in the midst of the Mischief Reef incident; but the political and economic, not to mention military, balances have long been tilted towards China. On the South China Sea territorial disputes, for instance, trade, soft loan and other considerations now make it difficult for non-claimants in the ASEAN bloc to risk a downgrade of their relations with China in order to support the ASEAN claimants. Why do you think is Vietnam, an erstwhile US foe, being drawn to the American orbit instead of trying to call for a united ASEAN front against the Chinese?
Don’t get me wrong, the ASEAN as a multilateral institution is indeed very promising, and it will be in all Southeast Asian nations’ long-term interest to strenghten the ASEAN and make it a major player in regional geopolitics. But in order for the Association to be a geopolitical equal of the big powers, it has to first be able to whip up its members so it could maintain a united front. Solve the Thai-Cambodian border dispute first, for instance.