Asean in a new bipolar world



THERE is nothing novel, much less revolutionary, in President Donald Trump’s America First foreign policy. The world has long suspected that under the cap of Policeman of the World and World Champion of Liberal
Democratic Values lies uppermost in the mind the selfish, national interests of the people of the United States.
It is just unimaginable that the US having tasted world supremacy will leave the pinnacle without a fight.

Let us gather the leaves blowing in the wind and see what the oracle says. Trump is obviously picking a fight resenting that US investments in China are taking jobs away from Americans and threatening to slap high tariffs on Chinese imports. There is more. Take the

Tramp decision to increase considerably the defense budget to retain US supremacy in nuclear and
conventional weapons. Take his dear wish to put Russia on his side. Take his call to

NATO allies to bear their share of the costs of the alliance. Add them all up and one arrives at the conclusion that the US is gearing up for a showdown with the superpower on the rise, China.

China, for its part, has considered Obama’s Pivot to Asia as an attempt to contain its rise.

This side of the Obama’s Pivot Trump is more likely to escalate, rather than repeal. China has no illusions about US intentions in Asia. Hence, China tells Southeast Asians griping about

China’s transformation of the reefs in the South China Sea into militarized islands. “This is not about or against you.” (China’s claiming almost all of the South China Sea is another matter, a matter to be settled with Asean and claimant member-countries.)

How does Asean stand in this gathering storm pitting the US against China in the world’s return to bipolarity?

To my mind, Asean do well to stick to the agreement it made in Kuala Lumpur in 1971 that the neutralization of Southeast Asia was a desirable objective. The 1971 Declaration of Southeast Asia as a Zone of Peace,
Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) is said to elaborate on the Bangkok Declaration of 1967 establishing Asean, whereby the member-countries assumed primary responsibility for strengthening the economic and social stability of the region and ensuring their security from external interference. The impending world order or disorder seems to be similar to the circumstances of the world in 1971. There was a struggle between two superpowers called a Cold War only because the protagonists were held back by the mutual destructiveness of their nuclear arsenals. In addition, the Vietnam War had entered a phase where the invincibility of the United States and the value of military alliances had been put to question.

A meeting of Asean senior officials in Jakarta the following year spelled out what a Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality meant: Peace is a situation where harmonious relations among states in the region exist.
Freedom means free from domination or interference from outside powers in matters of domestic as well as foreign policy of the states of the region.

Neutrality is the attitude of not taking side in the conflict or war between other nations as understood in international law and the UN Charter. The same meeting agreed on guidelines for the relations between states in the region and with states outside the region, which had 14 points:

1. Respect the UN Charter.

2. Mutual respect on the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity.

3. The right of every state to protect the national existence free from foreign intervention, subversion, and coercion.

4. Non-interference in the internal affairs of states in the region.

5. Refraining from inviting or giving approval to the interference by foreign powers in the internal affairs of the states in the region.

6. Settlement of disputes by peaceful means in accordance with the UN Charter.

7. No threatening or using of force in the relations between nations.

8. Refraining from using armed forces in international relations except for self-defense. Either individual or collective, in accordance with the UN charter.

9. No involvement in the conflicts between powers outside of the region and no entering into agreements which are inconsistent with the objectives of ZOPFAN.

10. The absence of military bases in the territory of the states in the region.

11. The prohibition of the use, storage, transit or testing nuclear weapons or components in the region.

12. The right to trade freely with other countries or international institutions.

13. The right to accept aid freely to promote national resilience except if such assistance is given in conditions not consistent with the objectives of ZOPFAN.

14. Effective regional cooperation among states in the region.

With respect to points 5, 9, and 10, The Philippines and Thailand were asked about the presence of US military facilities in their countries. Both countries said they were temporary and they did get rid of those facilities, Thailand ahead of the Philippines. In the context of the Asean Declaration on ZOPFAN, the magnificent senators who voted against the renewal of the agreement on the continued presence of US military facilities could be deemed not only Filipino nationalists but also good Southeast Asians.

From the same perspective, what does one make of the PH-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement? President Duterte’s announcement of stopping the PH-US joint military exercises and sending home American troops in two years would not only be pleasing to the Chinese but in consonance with ZOPFAN.

But one must not overlook what to me is a critical condition of the declaration for the neutralization of Southeast Asia. The member-countries agreed not only to exert the necessary efforts to secure the recognition of and respect for Southeast Asia as a Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality but also to make concerted efforts to broaden the areas of cooperation which would contribute to their strength, solidarity and closer relationship.

The strides Asean has made in building an integrated “economic community” must today be matched with progress building its “political security community.” The citizens of Asean should find comfort and safety in the neutralization of Southeast Asia, in the ability of its combined forces to deter and defend aggressors violating the region’s neutrality.


Congratulations to Undersecretary Enrique Manalo on his appointment as Acting Secretary of Foreign Affairs! The rank and file of the Department of Foreign Affairs are reportedly in acclamation of President Duterte’s decision to appoint the veteran diplomat to the position and hope the President would consider making him a regular Secretary of Foreign Affairs.


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1 Comment

  1. ed r babaran on

    And what do you do if the rising superpower in the region is flexing its muscle to control the region, militarily in addition to its already existing hold on the region’s economic balance??? Do we continue to promote a zone of peace, freedom, and neutrality as that superpower encroaches on your extended economic zone, converting your shoals and reefs into military outposts that can invite aggression from the other side??? Asean is inutile in dealing with the current situation in the South China Sea.