TERRITORIAL disputes in the region cast a cloud over business leaders converging in Jakarta in the coming days for the Asean Business and Investment Summit (ABIS) and related events. Asean is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a regional bloc that has a rotating chairmanship assigned to Indonesia this year. ABIS is the private-sector event that follows a series of high-level government meetings held throughout the year.
“ABIS 2023 will strengthen cooperation between stakeholders, facilitate potential ideas and strengthen the resilience and competitiveness of the Asean business landscape,” M. Arsjad Rasjid, chairman of the Asean Business Advisory Council or Asean-BAC, said. “This event will play an important role in shaping a conducive business environment in the Asean region, creating opportunities for business leaders to engage in constructive dialogue with policymakers and other parties,” he added on the council’s website.
That hints at geopolitical issues in the South China Sea that have become a potential flashpoint for global conflict. China claims roughly 80 percent of that sea, including areas within the exclusive economic zones of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei. Also, those same Asean states have overlapping territorial claims.
Maintaining regional peace and stability is everyone’s main goal, as that is a prerequisite for continued growth and prosperity in the region.
Increasing trade and interlocking economic interests among Asean and its partners, including China, will hopefully push geopolitical matters to the so-called back burner.
China and Asean are again negotiating a code of conduct. Once in place, that should set up guardrails against escalation, which seems likely as confrontations between Chinese and Filipinos become more frequent and intense.
Indonesia and Vietnam have taken a harder stand against China, but the Philippines lacks the force to do something similar. Still, China has criticized the Marcos government for reaching out to the United States and other allies to develop a credible minimum defense.
But even as China objects to the increased US military presence through a security pact with the Philippines, its People’s Liberation Army has been building up forces in Cambodia and around East Timor and the Solomon Islands. Also, not a few have pointed out that China seems to be locking down navigational access to the South China Sea, where 60 percent of maritime trade passes through.
Moreover, China’s policy on Myanmar contradicts the Asean on some issues. During a visit to Myanmar earlier this year, China’s foreign minister vowed to help the junta maintain stability. Meanwhile, Asean, led by Indonesia, has been asking Myanmar’s military to end violence against civilians protesting the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and to restore democracy.
Business for peace
Asean business leaders hope to preserve the bloc’s unity and avert conflict by promoting and strengthening economic partnerships. In that spirit, Asean-BAC organized the Asean Business Awards to highlight the importance of collaboration and community empowerment in Southeast Asia.
Bernardino Vega, alternate Asean-BAC chairman, said, “We firmly believe that strong partnerships and social responsibility play an important role in driving prosperity across the Asean region. By recognizing and celebrating an extraordinary business community, we aim to inspire others to contribute to Asean’s sustainable economic growth.” Both China and the US are important to Asean economies, and as of 2022, the bloc’s share of global trade had grown to 7.8 percent. That share should increase further. One reason is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free-trade agreement that includes Asean, plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Another is the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, the US-led version of RCEP that covers Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand and seven Asean states, including the Philippines.
If anyone or anything can use economic linkages to promote peace, it is perhaps Asean. Among its most notable achievements over the past 56 years is avoiding all-out conflict among its members. That is no small feat, especially during the Cold War.
For Asean to succeed now, it needs to handle duplicitous attempts by some to divide the bloc with one hand and, with the other, offer friendship.
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