SANSHA City is China’s newest municipality. Extending over two square kilometres and with 613 residents, Sansha City has its own mayor, sea and airport, supermarket, as well as a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) garrison.

Established on the Yongxing or “Woody” Island in the Paracel Islands of the South China Sea, the municipality represents a bold assertion of Chinese control.

Sadly in the face of such brute determination, Asean has merely whimpered.

Indeed, earlier this month at the normally-staid Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Phnom Penh, the grouping revealed its ineffectiveness and lack of unity in the face of high-level lobbying from Chinese and American officials when the association failed to produce a joint communique at the conclusion of the meeting.

In short, we are in danger of becoming passive participants in the new “Great Game” – the geopolitical face-off between China and the United States.

Unsurprisingly, the main point of contention was the South China Sea, with its overlapping territorial claims, historical grudges and energy politics all jumbled up.

China claims most of the South China Sea as its own.

Unfortunately, China’s territorial pretensions clash with separate claims by Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.

The contest is heightened because of two factors – the importance of the trading routes and the vast natural resources under the sea itself – estimated to be as much as 213 billion barrels of oil and two quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas.

China, unsurprisingly, has always been quick to assert its rights.

It clashed with Vietnam in 1974 over the Paracel Islands and came dangerously close to repeating the experience with the Philippines earlier this year when their navies engaged in a tense stand-off near the Scarborough Shoal.

A more Asia-focused United States has weighed in to support its former Philippine colony.

Troop deployments in Australia and improved relations with Myanmar and Vietnam have created a potentially explosive mix.

Meanwhile, Asean is little more than the proverbial (and increasingly scared) mousedeer caught between two feuding elephants.

In many ways, though, Asean’s indecisiveness is perhaps unsurprising.

It’s further proof that there’s little holding us together – besides the overly confident boosterism of the business community seeking to establish a unified market of over 600 million consumers.

For decades, we’ve paid lip-service to the grouping whilst pulling our separate ways.

Now, when we really need to fend off Great Power interference, we’re confronted by our lack of cohesiveness and disunity.

In short, all the golf and durian diplomacy has floundered and we’re stuck in a veritable “bunker”.

On the one hand, Cambodia’s refusal to endorse a joint communiqué at the meeting reflected its near-total economic reliance on China.

According to news reports, the Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong’s manner didn’t help matters either.

Meanwhile, Vietnam and the Philippines have been forced to balance their historical antipathy towards China with the reality of the Middle Kingdom’s proximity and sheer might.

Indonesia (mindful of its own size) appears to view the deadlock as an opportunity to demonstrate its regional leadership credentials.

As a consequence, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono directed his Foreign Minister, Marty Natelgawa to tour Asean in search of a fresh consensus on the issue.

For Malaysia and Singapore, the South China Sea impasse requires extreme delicacy.

As multiracial trading nations, both must assert their sovereignty and Asean credentials without alienating China.

Still, Asean must deal with contemporary realities.

Whilst we’ve been a diplomatic backwater for decades, the economically resilient grouping is no longer under the radar screen.

As one of the few economically robust regions, we’re now front and centre – besides which, with China on the rise, we’re geopolitically important.

This is all very dramatic and fun to read about but in reality it’s a painful headache as China and the United States stalk one another warily.

Let’s face it: the “Asian Century” is going to be fraught with danger and insecurity and I haven’t even begun to discuss the increasingly erratic and dysfunctional Chinese foreign policy and military apparatus.

The core issue is – do we “hang” together or go our separate ways?

We in Asean need to resolve this fundamental challenge.

Do we promote and implement “regional integration” as well as the “Asean community” or do we cut deals with China one-on-one?

The South China Sea is crunch time for Asean, and Malaysia.

We can either continue dithering and be reduced to pawns on a chessboard, or band together to show the world that we intend to live up to our geopolitical promise as well.

The choice is ours – but I guess it’ll have to wait until after the General Election. Sigh…



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