Asean and Mekong as Anti-China blocks – Khmer Times

Asean and Mekong platforms have gradually become platforms for China bashing with the ongoing over securitization of these regional and sub-regional frameworks. There are three clusters of issues being used to securitise these platforms for the purpose of China bashing.
The first cluster is the South China Sea territorial dispute. In this cluster, there are many sub-issues such as excessive territorial claims, unilateral change of status quo by force, militarization, freedom of navigation and overflight, illegal fishing, damage of marine environment, 2016 arbitral tribunal, supremacy of UNCLOS, and the free and open Indo-Pacific.
The second cluster is the Mekong issues, which include water resource management, environmental degradation, hydropower dam, low level of Mekong river water, drought and flood, decrease of fishery resources, debt trap, unchecked development, etc.
One of the main ideas of this cluster is to push for Asean-isation of the Mekong issues and treat these issues like the South China Sea.
The third cluster concerns China’s governance such as human rights issues in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, genocide, and crimes against humanity.
The above talking points are being raised interchangeably both at the Asean and Mekong platforms, blurring the line between these two platforms. Sometimes, the South China Sea issues are also included in the Mekong sub-regional platforms.
Within the Asean platforms, all venues are usable in attacking China, and every mechanism is being clogged with securitisation of agenda with the South China Sea issues and Indo-Pacific strategy appearing everywhere.
Over-securitisation of agenda has led to obsolete differences between some mechanisms. For example, it is becoming difficult now to differentiate between the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) because countries just come to talk about the same agenda of overwhelming security issues related to China.
The Asean Plus Three (APT) retains, at least at the moment, its proper characteristics in focusing on concrete cooperation activities and less China bashing. It is expected that APT too will be over-securitised in the near future.
As Asean and Mekong platforms tend to focus too much on security issues, the platforms are becoming intoxicated talk-shops that stir mutual accusation, instigate mutual distrust, and proxy and agency blame games. China is the elephant in every room.
For some, China now is becoming the only devil for every regional problem. Other pillars of cooperation, namely economic pillar and socio-cultural pillar are becoming less important despite the fact that under the severe pandemic and socio-economic crisis, countries should focus more on these two pillars instead of being attracted to tension.
When the US is planning to introduce the so-called comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategy with Asean at the centre and to reinvigorate the Mekong-US Partnership as well as the Friends of the Mekong, the ongoing trend of over-securitisation is even deepening.
Such trend can be attributed to three factors. Firstly, Asean and Mekong do not have the power to stop the anti-China tide. Secondly, some countries are benefiting from the aggressive anti-China policy of the US.
Thirdly, there are no stabilising powers to put a break on this securitisation trend. For instance, India, who intends to become stabilising power, cannot act like one when it is an active member of the Quad and is having some benefits in containing China’s rise.
Russia, on the other hand, often raises issues that are much more akin to the agenda of the United Nations Security Council, and shows more interest in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Eastern Europe and Central Asia, while it does not have much to talk about on Asia Pacific owing to its small presence and interest it has in the region.
Canada wants to be part of the East Asia Summit (EAS) and Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) Plus. The UK who has finally become the 11th dialogue partner of Asean is stressing the importance of the Indo-Pacific strategy.
Countries in Europe are putting more emphasis on their own versions of the Indo-Pacific strategies. And these countries are adding more anti-China tone, and are inclined towards the securitization of Asean agenda.
In putting their arguments forward, all like-minded actors underline rule-based international order and universal values, and China is being perceived as not playing by the established international rule and norms, and as the revisionist of the regional order that has been centered on the US’ superiority and dominance. The challenge now for regional and sub-regional multilateralism is how to go beyond China’s factor sensation.
Indeed, China factor can be part of the agenda but it should not overshadow every other agenda, especially, it should not become the factor that disrupt unity and solidarity within multilateralism and regionalism when the region needs them the most in such critical time of dual crisis caused by the pandemic and economic downturn. At this juncture, it is fair to say that the US and allies have succeeded in their strategies to contain China’s rise on multilateral platforms in the Asia Pacific and to portray China as the devil.
It is a win for some actors in the short term, but in the long term, the region is at risk of becoming the center stage for a win-lose battles between the two superpowers.
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