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Asean must re-invent itself

The Association of South East Asian Nations or Asean sounds like a potential check against the maritime expansionism Red China is currently engaged in. To those who don’t know it yet, the communist bully northwest of the Philippines has unilaterally altered the map of its territory to include islands, islets, and shoals obviously within the territory of other countries or which are disputed by different nations.

Sadly, Asean is not what it sounds like.

The concept of a regional organization in South East Asia did not begin with Asean. After World War II, the threat of communist expansionism was stalking the fledgling democracies in the region, including the Philippines. By the end of 1954, mainland China was under communist control, and the communists in North Vietnam kicked out their French colonizers. South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines had to fight communist insurgencies in their backyards. All these led to the creation of the South East Asia Treaty Organization or SEATO, which was envisioned to contain communist expansion in the region with military and economic assistance from the United States. The Philippines became a member of SEATO in 1954.

SEATO was supposed to be patterned after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance established in 1949 by the US, Canada and countries from Western Europe. NATO was to guard against any invasion from the now-defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (also known as the Soviet Union) and the communist countries in Eastern Europe. In the end, SEATO proved ineffective because unlike NATO, an attack on a SEATO member was not necessarily construed as an attack against the others. With communism on the rise in South East Asia, SEATO proved to be a failure.

In 1963, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia put up an association called Maphilindo. It was basically an ethnic alliance of Malay peoples to promote better understanding among the nationals of the three countries. The concept of Maphilindo was first suggested before World War II by the great Filipino patriot and nationalist Wenceslao Vinzons. Unfortunately, Maphilindo was doomed from the start because of the Sabah conflict between the Philippines and Malaysia. Another sort of regional alliance was created after that but like SEATO and Maphilindo before it, the next organization was short lived.

1967 saw the formation of the Asean by five founding countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Ostensibly, Asean was meant to be an economic alliance and not a military pact.

In the 1970s, the countries then comprising Asean tried to comport themselves as non-aligned countries in the Cold War between the US and the West on the one hand, and the Soviet Union and its Eastern-block allies on the other. This move was simply wishful thinking on the part of ASEAN members—that its protestation of political neutrality will convince the Soviet Union and Red China not to support the communist insurgencies in South East Asia. At any rate, Asean’s self-proclaimed non-aligned status was a charade because the US had bases in Thailand and the Philippines at that time.

When South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos fell to communist forces in 1975, there was nothing Asean could do about it. Asean just watched when the murderous Cambodian communist madman Pol Pot ironically re-named his country Democratic Kampuchea and killed a third of the population. The alliance was also unable to do anything about the Thai pirates in the Gulf of Thailand who preyed on “boat people”–desperate, destitute Indo-Chinese refugees fleeing communism in their homeland.

Asean eventually expanded its membership to include Brunei, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar (the new name of Burma). The admission of Myanmar to Asean supposedly made a big time American business tycoon withdraw his investments in South East Asia, resulting in the 1997 Asian economic crisis.

Today, the relationship among Asean members is bedeviled by bilateral issues. Years ago, after Vietnam tricked the Philippines into relinquishing an islet in the disputed Spratly island chain, Vietnam seized the islet. Cambodia remains a stooge of Red China and refuses to condemn the current spate of Chinese maritime expansionism. Sabah remains a source of friction between the Philippines and Malaysia so much so that in 2013, Kuala Lumpur virtually allowed the maltreatment of Filipinos there. Just recently, Singapore revealed its disdain for Filipinos by promoting, among others, a racist attitude against them in restaurants and in other public places. Thailand in now governed by a military junta, and Malaysia currently discriminates against its minority Christian population.

There are announcements that by 2015, Asean nations are expected to take steps towards creating a common economy for the region, something akin to that of the European Union. That goal may not be easy to achieve because Asean countries actually compete for the same markets—foreign investors, tourists and importers. Also, the economies of Asean members are largely incompatible with each other. There are capitalist economies (the Philippines and Singapore); socialist economies (Vietnam and Laos); command economies (Myanmar, Brunei, and Thailand); sectarian economies (Malaysia and Indonesia); and a fledgling economy (Cambodia). 2015 is less than a year away and Asean has yet to explain how such a common economy can be realized in so short a time.

While Asean has done a lot to promote trade among its members, e.g., the visa-free arrangement among Asean members, current events in the East China Sea, however, require Asean not only to rethink its role as an economic fraternity, but to likewise re-invent itself as a collective force, perhaps even as a military alliance, to stop Beijing’s plans of converting that strategic maritime highway into a Chinese lake. It is obviously in the best interests of Asean to do so, because if China gets away with its bullying tactics, the economies of Asean countries will face a collective crisis of unimaginable, unprecedented proportions. Should that situation arise, Asean will end up a failure.

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