BANGKOK — Asia’s rise on the global economic stage – and the growing competition for resources that entails – is leading the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to position itself as a shaper of security architecture to avoid regional conflicts, especially after recent tensions over the South China Sea.
At the World Economic Forum in Bangkok, ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said his organization needs to help resolve such issues.
Four ASEAN member states – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei – have competing claims with China over access to the South China Sea, which is said to be rich in oil and gas reserves.
Tensions between China and Vietnam, and more recently between China and the Philippines, have made the region a potential flashpoint for conflict.
Surin, a former Thai foreign minister, said China is already “conscious of its own responsibility and interests in the region.”
“[Regarding] our problem with China on the South China Sea, we have agreed with the Chinese [that the best way forward] is to demonstrate to the world that we can manage the differences among us without having to resort to violence and open conflict,” he said.
Establishing a “code of conduct” to guide competing states is a central point of discussion within ASEAN, said Surin, who added that China wants a key role in setting the guidelines.
“ASEAN would offer the forum,” he said. “ASEAN would offer the stage, the process and encouragement and I think along the way we can contain, again, the differences, and we can show the world that we can manage [and] are not going into open conflict. That already is a great achievement.”
According to Peking University Professor Zha Daojiong, ASEAN’s role in avoiding conflicts is vital.
“ASEAN is very central to security maintenance,” he said, describing the organization as indispensable to regional stability and sustained growth. “If you look at today’s Asia, we are so lucky. That spirit of leaving no stones untouched; that spirit of consultations; that spirit of working with each other to get you own house in order. Championing a military solution to solve problems in another state: that should not happen here in Asia.”
Economist Rajiv Biswas says as Asian economies grow military expenditures are rising, outstripping the European Union and the United States. He says a long-term security dialogue is important for the region.
“The economic rise of Asia has to be accompanied by a strengthening of the security architecture of the Asia Pacific,” he said. “And clearly the governments are moving in that direction.”
By including security and economic partners, such as the United States and Russia, ASEAN is making concrete achievements in building the regional security architecture, he said.