Asean Economic Community flags on the blue sky background. illustration: iStock
The ASEAN region boasts a young population, burgeoning middle class, and growing economic clout. Photo: iStock

ASEAN Summit 2019 is special because it will be held in June, much later than in previous years. Previous summits were normally held in April, but special accommodation was made for Thailand, this year’s summit host, as it grappled with the formal coronation of King Vajiralongkorn and the formation of a newly elected government.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (center), Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (left) and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-Ocha wait onstage for a group photo before the ASEAN-China summit on the sidelines of the 33rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Singapore on November 14, 2018. Photo: AFP / Lillian Suwanrumpha

Perhaps everything happens for a reason, and this year’s summit couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. It will take place against the backdrop of an increasingly bitter trade war between the US and China. Trade talks have broken down between the two big powers and they have slapped additional tariffs on each other. China is looking into additional retaliatory actions such as the creation of unreliable foreign entities to retaliate against the US decision to ban Huawei from operating with American companies.

Hence this year the ASEAN Summit takes on a greater significance compared with previous years. It is an opportunity for ASEAN to demonstrate its relevance in this climate of mistrust between China and US that threatens the security of the world, including Southeast Asia.

It has been an open secret that ASEAN has been divided for years as the US and China tussle for influence in the bloc. And this division prevents ASEAN from coming together as one collective bloc in the face of important international developments, to its own detriment.

One notable event was the 2016 ruling by a tribunal in The Hague in favor of the Philippines in its case against China. However, in the ASEAN Statement of that year, any paragraphs that mentioned the case were removed, as ASEAN requires unanimous consent among its member states before a statement is released.

Cambodia and Laos, which are known to be close to China, firmly opposed any mention of the case in the statement.

This infuriated other countries such as Vietnam that have grave reservations over Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. The development has laid the groundwork for a deep split within ASEAN that threatens to undermine the relevance and effectiveness of the bloc.

And now with rising tension between China and the US, it is time for ASEAN members to cast all divisions aside and unite as a bloc to present itself as a rational voice on this matter.

For this year’s summit, ASEAN should release a joint statement calling on the US and China to resolve the dispute in a calm and peaceful manner.

As Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said, “When the lines start to get drawn, everybody asks, are you my friend or not my friend? And that makes it difficult.”

This dispute has real-life implications for ASEAN as all of its members want to be friends with the US and China. And the conflict is bound to make the current arrangement increasingly unsustainable.

As the US has led an international effort to curb Huawei, countries including Japan and Australia have signed up to American initiative. But Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has rejected attempts to exclude Huawei, saying his country will use the Chinese firm’s technology as it deems fit. This is very important, because Malaysia has rejected the US attempt to drag it into America’s efforts against China. It is very important for ASEAN to reject such attempts and avoid unwittingly contributing to the worsening of the conflict.

If ASEAN doesn’t come together as one bloc and pull its weight on the US-China trade dispute, this worst-case scenario has every chance of being realized.

In the coming days, China and the US are bound to try to influence individual member states of ASEAN to come to their side. The member states should reject such manipulation and stand firmly as one bloc to oppose the march toward a new Iron Curtain.

ASEAN worked its magic in the aftermath of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to prevent its legitimization. It is time for ASEAN to work that magic again.

Maa Zhi Hong

Maa Zhi Hong is a political analyst in Singapore who has written for Today, Asia Times, the South China Morning Post and Nikkei Asian Review. His official Instagram account is @maazhihongofficial.

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