28.11.2015 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Asian Forums and Development of the Situation in the Southeast Asia

897555After the G-20 summit held in Turkey on November 15-16, which riveted public attention especially in connection with the latest events in the Middle East and Europe, a top-level session of the forum of the APEC member countries took place in the capital of Philippines, Manila on November 17-20.

Then on November 21, leaders of the major world powers moved from Manila to the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur to participate in several forums of yet another summit of the member countries of the sub-regional association, ASEAN, which comprises 10 countries of Southeast Asia.

China, Japan and South Korea—the three core members of this Association—participated in general and separate forums conducted in the ASEAN+3 and ASEAN+1 formats respectively, held in Kuala Lumpur.

In addition, another forum ASEAN+6 (ASEAN+3 + India, Australia and New Zealand) also took place, where participants stressed the impossibility of formalizing an agreement on the creation of a free trade zone in its current configuration and decided to extend the negotiation process for another year.

All these events were held against the backdrop of a complex (and even alarming) situation in the coastal waters of China. But before we continue our discussion on what influence the recent regional forums had on the current situation, it would be reasonable to conduct a brief study of the role and meaning of such forums in contemporary foreign affairs.

APEC—an organization established to stimulate integration processes in the Pacific Rim—has long lost its significance. Besides the idea of creating a forum of such magnitude corresponded to the conditions of the “end of history” sentiment that abounded back then, that all political issues would be soon resolved and gone for good and “the world community” would enjoy all the “benefits of peace.”

However, history simply refused to fall under the spell of the “shaman’s drum” heralding its (history’s) death and continued its longstanding existence in the form of classical polarization of “the world community” with traditional contradictions of interests between the separate groups.

Today there exist several such “lines of division” in the world, with the American-Chinese one continuing to hold the title of “the most drastic.” The first signs of division manifested themselves back in the second half of the 1990s, and the gap has only being deepening and widening ever since.

The ambitious behavior of the two leading global powers in the Pacific Rim (which is currently the main “stage” for this global political “performance”) doomed the idea of creating a single regional project that would facilitate integration in the region, thus rendering the organization, which was established to provide an ideological support for the project, irrelevant.

Today the benefit of its existence is seen mainly in that it has turned into an important communication platform for the leaders of the regional “performance”—the US, China, Japan and India, which have been joined by South Korea, Australia and Taiwan, playing secondary roles. It is curious that the list of the APEC member states includes the remarkable euphemism “Chinese Taipei” denoting Taiwan.

That is why today public’s attention is drawn not so much to the summation documents, issued at the end of each APEC summit, a product of bureaucracy, but to the symbolic messages that the behavior of summit participants sends to the world. It seems that public takes special interest in making a note of willingness or reluctance of representatives of certain countries to meet with each other during summits and also pays special attention to the topics being discussed at the plenary meetings and in the course of bilateral talks.

As it has been mentioned before in the articles published in the NEO, as the trend toward the increased influence of the Japanese-Chinese relations on the situation in Southeast Asia (and the Pacific Rim as a whole) continues to develop, the question of which prism Beijing and Tokyo are currently looking at each other through is becoming more and more relevant.

Up until November 2014, the answer to this question was rather pessimistic. However, it was during the penultimate forum of APEC, which took place in Beijing that Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China and Shinzo Abe of Japan met for the first time in three years (another meeting between PM Abe and President of South Korea Park Geun-hye also took place). The meeting brought hope that there will be a thaw of relations between the leading Asian powers.

However, the thaw is occurring at a very slow rate and at times seems to be rather ephemeral. The tripartite summit with the participation of the People’s Republic of China, Japan and South Korea held in Seoul on November 1, was one of the rare positive events of the recent time.

However, the fact that the top Chinese official was not present at the event once again emphasized that Japanese-Chinese relations are still far from being perfect. Two months earlier PM Abe did not come to Beijing to participate in the celebrations on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the End of the Pacific War either, though, just a month before the festivities the visit of the Japanese PM to China was perceived as a done deal.

The two leaders did not meet during the G-20 or the APEC summits either. It remains a mystery, though, how they managed not to bump into each other walking through the hallways and halls of the premises where the summits were held.

As for the forums in Kuala Lumpur, the problem of an accidental unintentional meeting of the two leaders was solved in a radical way. China sent its PM, Li Keqiang, instead of the President, to represent it in the Malaysian capital, as was also the case a month earlier in Seoul.

To an onlooker it might seem quite clear that since China is interested in settling political disagreements with its southern neighbor, it would make sense for the leader of the country to be present at these forums.

The aforementioned helps single out the major problem with ASEAN and the forums convened in the framework of the Association. This problem is of the same nature as the problem with APEC—the strong influence the political division of the Pacific Rim (and of the world on the whole) has on the efficiency (and, therefore, on the significance) of the operations of ASEAN and forums organized in the framework of the Association.

Some of the ASEAN member states are literally “torn between two poles” as they strive to participate in the negotiation processes of the two competing integration projects, the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) and ASEAN+6.

The meeting of PM Abe with US President Barack Obama in Manila in the course of the APEC summit, which, as we have already said, took place amid recent failures to establish contacts between the leaders of the People’s Republic of China and Japan, serves as an illustration confirming that world is indeed divided.

Making comments on yet another meeting of the leaders of the US and Japan this year, the Japanese press emphasized the strengthening of the bilateral alliance in the South China Sea, i.e., in the most problematic area of the Pacific Rim.

In the course of the meeting, the American president expressed his satisfaction with the passing of a raft of defense laws by the Japanese National Diet (Japanese Parliament), and the Japanese prime minister, in turn, emphasized that he was happy to see the completion of negotiations concerning the creation of the TPP.

There was a statement made by PM Abe, which did not pass unnoticed in China and required clarifications on the part of the Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. PM Abe precisely said that Tokyo was considering the possibility of dispatching units of its Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to the South China Sea to ensure its own security and in fulfillment of the obligations toward its partner in the American-Japanese alliance.

Addressing an immediate reaction of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which drew the analogy between the current behavior of Japan in the South China Sea and its Second World War aggression, Yoshihide Suga explained that “currently, JSDF do not continuously monitor the situation in the South China Sea, and we do not have such plans on our agenda, neither do we plan to participate in the US freedom of navigation operations” in the S. China Sea.

Although the procedure for clarification of the “true meaning” of “bloopers” made by high-ranking politicians in live speech is quite ordinary, it should be kept in mind that in real politics (despite the importance of words and of their subsequent “clarifications”) it is not the words but the deeds that make all the difference.

And as far as the “deeds” are concerned, today we are witnessing the strengthening of ties between Japan and some countries of Southeast Asia (Philippines and Vietnam, in particular, whose relations with the People’s Republic of China are currently strained) as well as with ASEAN on the whole. And the nature of participation of the Japanese prime minister in the regional forums also testifies to the advancement of this process.

In conclusion it can be pointed out once again that the ambitious behavior of Japan and China in the Pacific Rim in general and in Southeast Asia in particular, remains so far one of the main obstacles on the path to the positive development of the situation in the region and impedes the efficiency of regional forums.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.