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2014 heralds new Great Game in Southeast Asia

Publication Date : 23-12-2013


The coming year will be tense and at times see confrontation among the major powers wanting to reach out to Southeast Asia and its vast maritime zones. Each player has set forth its game plans to preserve, and in certain cases expand, its sphere of influence.

The new Great Game is not being played out on the vast landmass of continental Asia, as in the past. Now it has moved to the fluid and problematic but resource-rich maritime territories of East Asia, covering major seas and - since last November - areas of the sky above them.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon the region - both littoral and non-littoral states - to cope with these security challenges. The paths they choose will also determine the degree to which playing fields are level, and the contours of a new strategic environment.

Their options are limited due to the geographic spread as well as the low-level air and naval defence capacities, spanning the whole gamut of maritime security fields. In this connection, 10-member Asean can either respond collectively and create new bargaining powers, or act, as it has previously, in its own "comfort zone". The latter option would divide and weaken Asean centrality.

In the coming days, the grouping will be caught in a dilemma as Myanmar takes the helm of Asean. So far, apart from its desire to integrate with the Asean economic blueprint, Naypyitaw has kept its political and security agenda very close to its sleeve. The Asean members are anxious to know the priorities the new chair will zero in on - and the sooner the better.

During the current chair, Brunei made clear at the beginning and followed through on three priorities: reducing tension in the South China Sea, accelerating economic integration and preparing youth for the future of Asean. A clear agenda would help the incoming chair and Asean to have sufficient time for consultation and navigate the grouping's priorities and activities.

Indeed, Myanmar's chair comes at the most pivotal time when the US, China, Japan and the EU are zooming in on Southeast Asia like laser beams with their rebalancing efforts. At this juncture, Naypyitaw's track record in representing Asean is still non-existent. For the past 14 years since its admission in 1997, it was literally kept out of the Asean family due to the previous regime's behaviour and sanctions imposed by the international community. The manner in which Myanmar chairs and sets the agenda will show how strong and intimate are these family ties.

Although some Asean leaders credited Myanmar's current transformation to their efforts since 1991 - long before the 1997 admission - when the grouping effectively rejected the EU's positions on political development there, the leaders in Nay Pyi Taw have yet to give such an official recognition.

A quick glance at Asean-Myanmar relations reveals a non-Asean thread to its policies and actions, especially those related to domestic and security issues, as well as foreign policy issues. Reforming the electoral system with invitations to Asean observers, releasing political prisoners, increasing media freedom, expanding civil society groups, and establishing a national human rights commission and a peace-building institute, are some hallmarks of the new Myanmar. Quite a few Asean members have already felt threatened by these unusual reforms.

As such, there is a sense of disconnectedness between Asean and Myanmar, which the latter needs to address to increase mutual confidence. For instance, Asean was perplexed when Nay Pyi Taw turned down a proposed special ministerial meeting on the Rohingya crisis in October 2012, when the issue was headline news. Asean wanted to help ease tension and lower the decibel level against Myanmar as the issue affected Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, which also suffered from the huge influx of displaced persons.

The new chair's attitude on Asean's external relations and transnational issues is extremely important as it can quickly cause ruptures and misunderstandings with Asean. The US, China and Japan have already clearly outlined their strategic priorities and requirements in the region with extensive engagements, especially in maritime security related matters.

Given Myanmar's resource riches and international dynamic, Asean hoped the chair would not initiate or do anything to jeopardise the grouping's interest. Most Asean members have not yet overcome the Phnom Penh trauma of 2012, when Asean failed to issue a joint communique.

The recent commemorative summits that Asean held with China in October and Japan in December offered valuable lessons for the new chair. Any negotiation involving sensitive issues related to Asean - for example, the South China Sea and recently the controversial Air Defense Identification Zone - must be fully consulted, and in these cases, "over and over" again. It cannot be rushed, with or without the chair's prerogative.


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