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The Quandary for Southeast Asians

By Darwin Wally T. Wee, a freelance journalist from the Philippines on exchange with the Economic Observer

Once again politics has hampered an excellent opportunity for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries to strike a breakthrough in territorial disputes and share in the untapped riches of the South China Sea’s oil and gas.
The 19th ASEAN Summit that ended over the weekend in the island resort of Bali in Indonesia was rather a showdown between the United States and China in their efforts to control the sub-pacific rim region, both economically and militarily.
The tension between the two bulwark countries divided the nations that compose ASEAN, running against the association’s aim of unity and harmony among its members.
Reading online news, one can conclude that ASEAN countries are trapped between the power struggle of US and China.
Reports revealed that the two big powers are each trying to lure ASEAN members onto their side of the fence, by making competing offers of aid and military equipment.
China is shelling out millions of dollars to potential allies in ASEAN, while the U.S. is helping to upgrade military capabilities of nations that are critical of China.
Several ASEAN members with claims over the South China Sea wanted the issue on the discussion table but they were pushed back by other nations, who said that the summit is not the right venue and members should instead concentrate on discussing economic cooperation and development.
How can economic cooperation and development without addressing the core issues of peace and security?
Unfortunately, the territory disputes described in the draft Code of Conduct were put on the backburner and left for next year’s summit.
Again, the ASEAN leadership has failed to decide on a crucial matter due to political and economic pressures either from the U.S. or China. Because of an aversion to taking sides between China and the U.S., the association has again failed to enforce what is best for the entire body.
Cambodia, who will be the next country to host the summit, now faces the tough decision of whether to allow the territorial dispute to be included in the next year’s agenda, but it will anyway depend on whether ASEAN’s member can reach a consensus.
Most likely, the issue will remain floating mid-air with the growing tension of military confrontations in the area between the claimants.
Failing to resolve the contentious issues in the South China Sea also means delaying the development of the oil and gas reserves under its waters.
Irrespective of the influence of China and US, the ASEAN countries renewed their charter and its commitment to being independent from outside pressure.


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