NST Leader: US-Asean summit

April 26, 2022 @ 12:00am

NST Leader: US-Asean summit

The United States, despite playing catch-up with China, is important to Asean. This is one reason why the US-Asean summit has been going on for 45 years.

Come May 12, Asean heads of state, including Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, will sit down for two days with US President Joe Biden in the White House to celebrate the four-and-half decades of “partnership” and talk things regional.

And more, now that the war in Ukraine is raging. Asean needs to speak with one voice if it doesn’t want to be talked down to by the US, which is in the habit of doing so at every chance it gets. This is a problem.

Very rarely, if ever, do Asean members march to the same beat. Examples are plenty, but take just two: South China Sea and Ukraine.

Start with the South China Sea. This is perhaps the diciest of issues for Asean. And China, with all its heft, isn’t making it easy for the bloc. One reason is the infamous U-shaped nine-dash line that in one fell swoop claims for China almost the entire South China Sea.

China summons history to its aid, but many academics have dismissed this nine-dash line as having no ground under international law. And so did the Permanent Court of Arbitration, when in 2016, it sided with the Philippines. To China, the arbitral tribunal was set up unlawfully.

Fortunately for some Asean members who share the maritime area of the South China Sea with China, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (Unclos), to which China is a state party, has a pleasing answer.

Dr Mohd Hazmi Rusli, an associate professor, Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and a research fellow at Australian National University’s Malaysia Institute in Canberra, says under Unclos coastal states may claim sovereignty over territorial sea up to 12 nautical miles measured from the baseline.

Beyond the 12 nautical miles limit not exceeding 200 nautical miles, he adds, coastal states may claim an exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, where they possess sovereign rights to exploit living and non-living resources within these maritime zones. But diplomatic protests to encroachments by China is a must.

“Coastal states must be steadfast in such protests. They must protest not because the US wants them to, but because the law requires so.” The Philippines has been the most vociferous.

Now for Ukraine. This is a recent pet issue for America. Both the US and its European allies have been circumambulating the globe trying to force countries to condemn and sanction Russia.

To most Asean members, wars are wrong and must be brought to a quick end. This they have called for. For the US to compel Asean members to condemn and sanction Russia, like Singapore has done, is going beyond the limit of diplomacy.

The US must be told that such pressures will further divide the already fractured bloc. Things are so bad that some suggest it is just a matter of time before Asean splits into two: Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Brunei and Indonesia on one side and Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand on the other. But this isn’t a tidy split either.

On most issues, Asean, almost always, is never united. Come August it will be 55. Make that five-and-half decades of divisions and indecisions.

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