16th ASEAN-China Summit (Photo: ASEAN Secretatriat)

By William Choong, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security

After their first meeting in Slovenia in 2001, then United States president George W. Bush said he had looked Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the eye and was ‘able to get a sense of his soul’.

Fast-forward 13 years, and Mr Barack Obama has seen Mr Putin's soul - and much more. In the past weeks, military forces loyal to Russia have overtaken Crimea in southern Ukraine and sparked the biggest confrontation between Russia and the West since the cessation of the Cold War two decades ago.

Russia's actions in Crimea surprised the Americans and Europeans. For years, the Europeans thought a more democratic and free-market-oriented Russia would integrate into the global community and, as a result, develop a modern allergy to the use of force.

The events unfolding in Ukraine might be far removed from Asia, but their implications bear directly on Asia and ASEAN in particular, given that the latter is in the driver's seat in building a slew of institutions to foster regional order and manage China's emergence.

Like the European approach to Russia, South-east Asians believe China can be ‘socialised’ into regional institutions such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Ministers' Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus). By weaving China into an interlocked web of shared norms, China can be convinced to preclude the use of force in its interactions with its smaller neighbours.

Like the Europeans on Russia, South-east Asians believe China would be unlikely to come to blows with Japan over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. After all, the two countries' economies are highly interdependent, and any conflict would entail dramatic losses in economic welfare and regional stability.

Like Russia, however, China has not and will not shy away from the use of force. It has been two years since Chinese paramilitary forces locked out the Philippines from the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

Last month, Chinese Coast Guard vessels blocked two Philippine ships attempting to resupply marines on Second Thomas Shoal.

The number of incursions into the Senkakus - as the islands are known in Japan - by Chinese government ships has also gone up. Last week, China seized the Baosteel Emotion, a Japanese-owned cargo ship, in a dispute with China over pre-war debt.

All this begs the question: Given that China, like Russia, is building its ‘China dream’ on a narrative of recovery from its much-vaunted ‘century of humiliation’ at the hands of Western powers, what can ASEAN do in the face of further displays or use of force by China?

The answer: Not much really. Put simply, missives would do little in the face of missiles.

Granted, ASEAN can take comfort in America's ‘rebalance’ to the Asia-Pacific. As the historical guarantor of Asian security and prosperity, Washington could be counted on to provide a backstop against Chinese assertiveness.

But as my colleague Christian Le Miere writes in Survival, the rebalance remains modest, given domestic financial pressures in the US and continuing commitments in the Middle East. More importantly, it is not a given that the US would act on its alliance commitments to the Philippines and Japan - two countries involved in territorial disputes with China.

This is not to say that ASEAN is ineffective. In recent years, the 10-member grouping has facilitated the integration of Myanmar back into ASEAN. It has succeeded in getting China, Russia and the US to join the East Asia Summit - the pre-eminent institution in the region.

The ADMM-Plus staged a four-day humanitarian assistance disaster relief and military medicine exercise in June last year. It was a historic exercise that involved 3,000 troops from countries such as the US, China, Japan, India and Vietnam.

But the challenge for ASEAN is to further such cooperation in the area of ‘hard’ security issues such as territorial disputes.

ASEAN lacks cohesion on the issue of the South China Sea, which involves four ASEAN members - the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam - and China.

This was clear in July 2012, when ASEAN failed to issue a communique due to differences over the South China Sea. Currently, only the Philippines has taken its dispute with China to an arbitral tribunal formed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Other ASEAN states, such as Malaysia and Brunei, have taken a more low-key approach in their disputes with China. And the jury is still out as to whether ASEAN can finalise a Code of Conduct agreement with China on the South China Sea.

ASEAN could also do little if push came to shove in the Sino- Japanese dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. The onus is on the US, and whether it would come to Japan's aid.

No wonder South-east Asian countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines have started to develop their anti-access area denial capabilities to better counter the growing dominance of the People's Liberation Army navy in the South China Sea.

Vietnam has ordered six Kilo-class submarines from Russia, while the Philippines has outlined plans to acquire new coastal cutters from the US Coast Guard, to be equipped with anti-ship missiles.

Therein lies the lesson from the Crimean episode: as in Europe, diplomacy, regional institutions and soft power are important in Asia. But when confronted with displays of hard power, the acquisition of hard power assets matters more.

In 1935, French foreign minister Pierre Laval suggested that the Soviet Union encourage Catholicism to propitiate the Pope. In reply, Josef Stalin said: ‘The Pope! How many divisions has he got?’

The Chinese approach to the use of force is similar. According to a Chinese slogan, guo jia zun yan shi da chu lai de (a country's sense of respect is derived from fighting). For many South-east Asian countries, this bears repeating.

This post orginally appeared in the Straits Times

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