The international war on terrorism tops the agenda of this week’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Brunei, but thus far much of the organization’s energy seems to have been drained by economic and territorial disputes.
On Wednesday, foreign ministers of the 10 ASEAN nations—Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam—will sign a pact with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, promising to cooperate on the anti-terrorism campaign, share information, block terrorist funds, and tighten borders. Nevertheless, several member states agreed with the sultan of Brunei, who in his opening address said that although the group’s future rests on its ability to quell terrorism, the campaign must combine military efforts with “economic, financial, cultural, and religious” sensitivity. Three of the ASEAN nations—Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia—have Muslim majorities, and since Sept. 11 many commentators have suggested that Southeast Asia, the home to more than 250 million Muslims, is the “second front” in the war against al-Qaida. Consequently, there is some discomfort with the increased U.S. presence in the region. According to the Age of Melbourne, “Officials said that Vietnam and Indonesia, in particular, pressed the point that the wording [of the declaration] should be tightened to avoid any subsequent interpretation that it endorsed the deployment of US armed forces. There is already sensitivity in many South-East Asian Muslim communities over, for example, Afghan civilian deaths from US bombing and a perceived bias towards Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.”
Brunei’s Borneo Bulletin said the “urgent need to address terrorism and global economic realities has wiped the once highly-touted ‘Asian values’ mantra from the vocabulary” of delegates. ASEAN countries are suffering from the global economic downturn and the growth of the Chinese economy—whereas ASEAN once (the Borneo Bulletin doesn’t say when) attracted 60 percent of investments into Asia, it now receives less than 20 percent. In the long term, the organization is interested in forming a free-trade market with China, though as Singapore’s Straits Times observed, Malaysia’s efforts to form an expanded regional grouping involving ASEAN, China, Japan, and South Korea has been rebuffed by other members who fear the new body would divert resources and dilute ASEAN’s importance. According to the paper, “an Asean diplomat also voiced a concern that if a new secretariat was formed to handle Asean Plus Three matters, it could lead to China running the show with South-east Asia playing the role of supporting cast.”
The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that ASEAN states had also failed to establish a process for resolving overlapping claims to South China Sea territories: “Four ASEAN states—the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam—as well as China and Taiwan have laid partial or entire claims to the Spratlys, an island group in the South China Sea believed to sit atop vast natural gas deposits. All except Brunei have stationed troops on their claimed islands, making the area a potential flashpoint for military conflict. … China and Vietnam are also both vying for the Paracels, another South China Sea chain lying 300 kilometers north of the Spratlys.” In 1999, attempts were made to establish a code of conduct to govern activities in the region, “But approval for the code has been hampered by disagreements on whether it should cover the entire South China Sea or only the Spratlys, or the Paracels, or other disputed chains.”