This week, two contrasting messages seemed to be sent by leaders of two ASEAN members- one optimistic and the other slightly more cautious.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong painted a cautiously optimistic picture for ASEAN. He pointed out the favourable attributes of ASEAN, “We are non-threatening, we are friends with all the major players, we have a well-established framework of bilateral cooperation with them and we are a neutral, convenient fulcrum around which all this cooperation can take place.” Lee seemed confident that the developments in the wider Asian region were favourable. Relations betweenJapan and China were generally stable despite the occasional friction; miscalculation in the Taiwan Straits was diminished and there was only a small likelihood of war in the Korean peninsular.
Lee reiterated the importance for ASEAN to deepen its relationship with India and China and continue to be tied to the rest of the world. He warned, “We know we have to move and we know that, unless we move, instead of taking off with China and India as our two wings, we’re going to be left behind.”
By contrast, the comments from the other side of the causeway suggested that the regional security outlook was not as rosy. At the 10th ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Heads of Defence Universities, Colleges and Institutions meeting held in Kuala Lumpuron 5 September 2006, Malaysia Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Datuk Seri Najib noted, “The Asia-Pacific is not free from conflicts… There are on-going sensitive security issues around us such as overlapping claims on the Spratlys, nuclear proliferation and transnational security issues.”
As a result of the “changing security environment affecting the region”, Najib emphasised the importance of the ARF, “Through this forum we can sit down together to understand the root causes of these security issues, create awareness and build up confidence which will allow us to narrow the gap of uncertainty.”
The Malaysia newspaper, The Star, picked up Najib’s comment of the possibility of conflict in the region whereas the Chinese news agency, Xinhua News Service emphasised the optimism of Najib in seeing the ARF evolve in a “more cordial and conducive environment.”
Whether boom or gloom, the future for all in Southeast Asia seems tied to ASEAN.
Najib: Region May See Conflict, The Star [Malaysia], 6 September 2006
Najib Wants ARF To Continue “ASEAN Way”, Malaysia General News, 5 September 2006
Vital for ASEAN To Maintain Links Beyond Asia: PM Lee, The Business Times [Singapore], 5 September 2006