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Don't let the past shape Asia's future

Publication Date : 21-09-2012


Asia has been roiling in turmoil over territorial disputes in recent days, with China at loggerheads with Japan, and the latter at loggerheads with South Korea, and the region engaged in increasingly fractious exchanges among claimants over overlapping claims to the oil- and gas-rich South China Sea.

Worse, these long-simmering spats are boiling over at a time of growing economic uncertainty and social unrest.

But pioneering Singapore diplomat Barry Desker remains confident about the region's future.

"I'm not so pessimistic about Asia," he said in an interview last Friday (September 14), noting how much surer, calmer and richer the region is today compared to the 1960s and 1970s, when it was pockmarked by communist elements and aflame with anti-colonial protests.

Desker, 65, is dean of the the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), a think-tank here that hosts the third instalment of its Singapore Global Dialogue today. The dialogue is a high-profile forum for global thinkers to discuss strategic security issues.

Recalling just how insecure Asia was in 1970, when he first started out at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), he said: "Southeast Asia in the 1970s was a cockpit of controversy... the picture did not look promising. Yet today, its situation is probably more hopeful than in south-eastern Europe, which was ravaged by conflict after the Cold War ended and with Yugoslavia splitting up."

Southeast Asia, in particular, was once known in diplomatic circles as "the Balkans of the East". But it avoided being "Balkanised" or riven by ethnic strife, noted Desker.

This was in part thanks to Asean, the now 10-member regional grouping that, among other things, welcomed the once-communist Indochinese states of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos into its fold unconditionally in the 1990s.

"You had a coming together of diverse states, particularly because Asean took them in without any conditions or a process where they learnt about the nature of the organisation that they were coming into, and the need for consensus among members," Desker mused.

That consensus, however, is being increasingly rattled by some of its members' competing claims over the South China Sea, a 3.5 million sq km body of water that China claims as its own too.

In 2009, for example, Vietnam and Malaysia put in their claims to the sea, based on an extended continental shelf, which prompted China to submit in May that year - for the first time at the United Nations - its Nine Dashed Lines map, demarcating about 90 per cent of the waterway as its entitlement.

By doing so, Desker said, China risked "undermining the goodwill" that it had amassed for itself in Asia.

In fact, he argued, China's muscle-flexing on the issue was what led to the recent United States "pivot to Asia" in the first place.

So might all this be leading to Cold War 2.0, with China replacing the former Soviet Union in a global face-off with the US?

It's too early to make such an assertion, Desker said. "My view on those who argue that a Cold War is in an incipient stage is that one should not look only at the maps of the past to derive the maps of the future.

"The future is in our hands and we can help to shape it and we need not merely be (led along) by the flow of events in the past."

Already, as a Reuters report had it in May, by asserting its Nine Dashed Lines, China was now in a Catch-22 situation: On the one hand, if it did not fend off claimants to the waterway, its increasingly nationalistic population would see its leaders as shrinking Chinese territory.

On the other hand, China is party to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

(Unclos), and its insistence that it owns most of the South China Sea would go against Unclos and anger its neighbours.

Either way, as one China foreign policy expert Sun Yun told Reuters, China cannot win. Can't it, though?

The key to ending the impasse, Desker said, is for China to engage all the claimants to the disputed sea and to reach a consensus with them.

Up till now, China has been bent on dealing with claimants one by one, which made things "difficult" given the overlapping nature of many of the claims.

The South China Sea spat would be better dealt with through some form of adjudication, if not arbitration, and certainly through more consultations beyond just bilateral talks, he reckoned.

Desker has a longer view on the restive region than most people: He headed the MFA's South-east Asia section in the early 1970s.

He rose to become Singapore's ambassador to Indonesia from 1986 to 1993. He then headed the Trade and Development Board from 1994 to 2000, and then moved on to join the think-tank world.

Asia, he mused, is a perennial lightning rod for conflict, having been bedevilled in the 1960s and 1970s by attempted coups in Indonesia and Thailand, communist insurgencies in Malaysia and Indochina, and protracted battles such as the Vietnam War, in which the US was embroiled.

Fortunately, he added, the region had Asean and its commitment to consensual decision-making, which has helped Asia keep the peace for 45 years.

Of course, he allowed, "when there were difficulties in reaching a consensus, the Asean Way meant the lowest common denominator (view) would hold".

Might that Asean spirit of consensus be dissipating, though?

In July, for the first time in its history, Asean's 10 members could not agree on a customary joint declaration at their summit in Phnom Penh.

That was because they locked horns over one paragraph in the draft declaration concerning some of the members' competing claims to the South China Sea.

But there is good news, Desker said. Since the Phnom Penh summit, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has quietly visited all other Asean members to get their consensus on a stand on the South China Sea, based on six principles.

Asean is poised to issue a joint declaration on this issue when its ministers meet in New York later this month for the UN General Assembly.

Desker stressed, however, that Asean itself wants no part in negotiating the South China Sea issue, but it is pushing for negotiators to abide by a code of conduct to resolve the conflict as peaceably as possible.

Asia, he said, will be where the world's most pressing concerns will play out from now on.

As it is, trade across the Pacific Ocean is already much greater than that across the Atlantic, and global decision-making would soon follow suit.

This also means that Asia could become the stomping ground for future global conflicts. So "the test for diplomats is how one could help to avoid such an outcome".

Away from the madding tensions over lands and seas, said the old Asia hand, the region has longer-range problems that require concerted action to tackle.

That is to say, can its many diverse communities form cohesive societies? Can it close the growing urban-rural gap even as more Asians crowd into cities? Can its governments really involve their increasingly vocal netizens in decision-making?

Last but not least, can it free its people from the middle-income trap, in which the middle class grows too comfortable to want to be more competitive and try new things?

Desker said such challenges are so great that they require seismic shake-ups in many areas, including enabling more of the region's children to complete at least secondary school so that they can better seize opportunities to do business or innovate.

"The difficulty in this," he said, "is that the tendency has been to be very comfortable with what we have and want to improve only incrementally."

While this concern does not apply to Singapore today, he said the Republic's sterling economic success presented a delicate problem: "How do you change a model that has worked so successfully? Or challenge the dogmas of the past?"

Desker, who was among Singapore's first President's Scholars in 1966, has roots in Singapore that go deep. Desker Road was named after his great-grandfather, butcher Andre Filipe Desker.

The think-tank he heads turned six this year. In January, RSIS was, for the first time, listed among the world's top 50 think-tanks outside the US, in the University of Pennsylvania's Global Go-To Think Tanks Report; it was 48th.

Desker said: "I'm always sceptical of such surveys because, in a sense, they are based on reputation... Every year, those who carry out such surveys change the parameters so that there is movement up and down the ranks."

Such volatility, he added, was "part and parcel of the game" of global institutional rankings.


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