"All problems in the region have been resolved through dialogue and negotiations constructively and productively."
The Asia-Pacific region where ASEAN is centrally situated has been a scene of political quiet, harmony and peace as the focal nations of ASEAN and China focus their collective efforts on subduing the pandemic and attempting to prepare the ground for economic recovery.
The past few months of 2021 the region have seen a resurgence of the COVID-19 scourge, although its most serious impact has gradually diminished and hopes of proceeding with economic recovery programs have gradually been rising.
Out of left field came the announcement of a new security alliance emerging in the region that provoked concern and trepidation. Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States have formed a new defense alliance called AUKUS with a nuclear submarines supply deal for Australia.
ASEAN and China have handled the South China Sea issue exceedingly well that there has been no perceptible ripple felt the past two years, clearing the path forward to the Code of Conduct for the SCS. Ironically, countries outside the region are stirring turbulent waves and distraction in this quiet neighborhood.
The project of ensuring the peace and security of the Asia-Pacific region has been a subject of collaborative efforts of ASEAN for decades. It has drawn up a set of agreements that sets parameters for the region to insulate it from the corrosive and destructive threats that abound in our contemporary age and time.
It is a timely moment to recall the ASEAN Declaration on a Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) signed in 1971 that sought to ensure the tranquility of the region, sovereign existence of all of its states, and non-alignment with any major global powers. The first major component of ZOPFAN was the establishment of the often-forgotten SEANWFZ.
The Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone was conceived five decades ago and signed by the ASEAN governments in Bangkok on December 15, 1995. All the years of reflection and deliberations on peace by ASEAN’s wisest diplomats, experts and leaders are embodied in these pacts while assessing the current political developments.
Cast against the backdrop of these ASEAN contracts, the nuclear facilities deal of the AUKUS should indeed raise concern not only over possible marine nuclear accidents that may occur but also the inevitable question of nuclear weapons that may or may not be carried along.
It is not surprising that three of the most significant stakeholders in the SCS, including Indonesia, Malaysia and China, have expressed deep concern over the AUKUS and, particularly, its nuclear submarine deal for Australia. The Philippine position on the matter has been less than clear.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. is quoted saying that the AUKUS could be “beneficial in the long term.” Does it mean it presents some detrimental effects in the short term? What is the short-term danger, then?
Locsin says the AUKUS will “restore and keep the balance of power rather than destabilize it.” Has there been an imbalance? Where is the evidence of that? Has there been an aggressor in the region that has exerted excessive force in any dealings with and among ASEAN members, or with the Philippines in particular?
As far as anyone can see, all problems in the region have been resolved constructively and productively, through dialogue and negotiations.
Locsin says AUKUS introduction into the regional scene will not “destabilize it” — what then is the furor raised by Indonesia and Malaysia, and the enraged sentiment we are seeing from China? In an interview with Australian TV, a pre-eminent Chinese international relations expert vigorously stressed that “brainless” Australia is making itself a target for nuclear attack with the AUKUS.
Locsin claims that without an actual presence of nuclear weapons, the AUKUS move would not be violative of the SEANFZ (Southeast Asian Nuclear Free Zone) of the ASEAN ZOPFAN (Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality) Treaty – as if there are no dangers from submarine nuclear reactors or the US and its allies ever hiding the presence of nuclear weapons in nuke submarines essentially designed to carry them.
Locsin does not seem to realize the geopolitical tectonic tremors from the AUKUS and nuke sub-deal announcement. Such insensitivity in a foreign secretary may be suicidal for a country sitting at the pivotal geostrategic junction of a superpower struggle.
Herman Tiu Laurel is a writer, broadcast and online political-economic educator, and founder of Philippine-BRICS Strategic Studies — a think tank advocating global multilateralism and the creation of a multipolar geopolitical world.