PREVIOUSLY, we spoke about how the US and its allies were deploying strategic military assets to the Far Eastern region, leading to speculation that they were beefing up measures to counter an increasingly assertive China in the region.
Now, let us look at how Malaysia and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) could move away from this potential conflict, by taking a firm stand on its neutrality since the Cold War era.
The Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) is a proclamation made in 1971 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, by the Foreign Ministers of the ASEAN member states including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
The parties openly announced their intention to preserve Southeast Asia “free from any form or manner of foreign influence” and “broaden the areas of cooperation” in the declaration.
Based on the Bandung Principles agreed upon at the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was formally created in 1961 at the Belgrade Summit.
One of the ten principles of Bandung Principles is non-use of collective defense pacts to benefit the specific interests of any of the great powers and it further emphasised that non-use of pressures by any country against other countries.
Despite the fact that ASEAN has developed close political and economic ties with China, Japan and the US, it must proclaim that, in accordance with the ZOPFAN and Bandung Principles, the area is non-partisan in any current or future conflicts.
Conflicting countries cannot utilise ASEAN as a launch pad for attacks on other countries.
For instance, the current maritime territorial dispute between China and three ASEAN countries (Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines) remains unsolved. Despite the fact that the Philippines won a case against China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration for its rights in the South China Sea, China has branded the verdict “ill-founded” and has stated that it would not be bound by it.
In addition, the tribunal found that China had infringed on the Philippines’ sovereign rights. Unfortunately, the Philippines’ current president, Rodrigo Duterte, regards China as a “good friend.”
The question now is whether a Government can pawn its own territory for economic gain, and if so, any country that does so will be in grave danger.
In terms of collective response to China, ASEAN has recently grown powerless and divided. Is overwhelming economic participation a fundamental reason why some ASEAN countries are hesitant to voice their opposition to China’s actions in the South China Sea?
Malaysia is a trading partner of China, Japan and the US, with the former investing heavily in our country. Since 2016, China has remained Malaysia’s largest foreign investor, according to the Malaysian Investment Development Authority (MIDA). During that time, MIDA approved 172 projects totalling RM43.6 bil in investment.
Even if Malaysia has recently leaned toward China for economic reasons, this should have no bearing on Malaysia’s decision to support it in the event of a future conflict. As it is, Malaysia is bound by the ZOPFAN and Bandung Principles and it should maintain its neutrality.
Now is the moment for Malaysia to take the lead by pressing ASEAN to state its position on the impending major power confrontation.
We understand that Malaysia is concerned about the surge of COVID-19 cases, the economic slump the rise in employment and political instability.
However, the nation’s sovereignty must be protected at all costs. Therefore, the current administration must pay close attention to the looming hostility between China and the US, which will take place in Asia in the near future. – July 25, 2021.
R Panier Selvam is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Business, Economic and Accounting/Institute of Crime and Criminology, HELP University.
The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.
Photo credit: Financial Times