On the Security Dimension of ASEAN-China Relations

GUANGZHOU CITY (17 July) – Shortly before boarding the aircraft for my early morning flight to China last week, I made my last Facebook post, thus: “FB Hibernation. I’m about to undergo a few days of Facebook hibernation. Keep in touch by email then. Logging out now…”

This I posted without stating the reason – that I was then about to enter a country wherein Facebook, Instagram, Google (Gmail, Play Store, etc.) and some other accounts cannot be accessed. In particular, I refer to the official invitation to participate in two academic events, viz. (1) a two-day International Conference and Ceremony to mark the 90th anniversary of Southeast Asian Studies and Overseas Chinese Studies at Jinan University and the 50th founding anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and (2) an eight-day Asia-China Peace and Leadership Workshop (Economic Development, Regional Cooperation, and Conflict Transformation) organized by Jinan University’s Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies.

Both events were or are being held in Jinan University, which is one of the oldest universities established in mainland China tracing back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Mandated to spread Chinese learning and culture from North to South and from Chinese overseas, the university was the first in this country to recruit foreign students and is currently the Chinese university with the largest number of international students.

The conference panels such as “Current Studies on Southeast Asia,” “Studies on Vietnamese History,” “Studies on Myanmar Politics,” “Overseas Chinese Studies,” “Language and Translation,” “Studies on Other Southeast Asian Countries,” “Studies on Malaysian Politics,” “Ethnic Chinese Business Network and Overseas Chinese,” “International Relations in Southeast Asia,” and “Studies on Chinese Malaysians” are interspersed with a keynote speech, a forum on Overseas Chinese Research, giving of awards, and a roundtable on ASEAN-China Relations.

The keynote speech was given by Prof. Anthony Reid of the Australian National University while awards were given to best papers published in Jinan University’s Journal of Southeast Asian Studies and the Yao Nan Translation Prize.

Apart from meeting presenters from the Philippines such as Prof. Rommel Banlaoi of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, Prof. Aileen Baviera of the University of the Philippine Diliman, and two fellow workshop participants from Ateneo de Manila University and Dela Salle University, the most interesting for me was the roundtable on ASEAN-China Relations on the first day, being attended by the consul-generals of the Southeast Asian countries in China.

The Philippines being the current Chairman of the ASEAN, the Filipino consul-general in China, Marie Charlotte G. Tang, delivered the Opening Address to the roundtable. In our personal conversation after the roundtable, it was equally fulfilling to realize that Ms. Tang was then my direct supervisor when I was undergoing practicum in the China Section, East Asian Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs in the summer of 1995.

The roundtable discussants included Prof. Reid of Australia, Prof. Baviera of the Philippines, and four Chinese scholars headed by Zhang Zhenjiang, Dean of Jinan University’s School of International Studies and the Academy of Overseas Chinese Studies.

For almost two hours, the roundtable discussion significantly centered around the ASEAN’s degree of success or failure, various obstacles to ASEAN integration, and current challenges and prospects of ASEAN-China relations.

In the open forum, I raised the following question:

“Throughout this two hours Roundtable, I was expecting to hear – even a bit – about regional security from a non-conventional framework. By non-conventional framework, I refer to security threats not coming from a neighboring state or states, and a global or regional hegemon, but rather coming from transnational violent actors such as the ISIS.

“As the ISIS is recently losing territorial ground in both Syria and Iraq, the possibility for this group to look for Southeast Asia whose Muslim population is more than those of Arab countries combined together is becoming more palpable. As we all know, a city in an ASEAN country – I’m referring to Marawi City in the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao – has been captured by ISIS-linked groups, and the alleged reports of participation of some Indonesians and Malaysians in the siege must bring a toll of alarm to the region.

“My question is: Is it not high time now to include this security concern to the main agenda of the ASEAN-China relations?”

One of the discussants responded by saying, among others, that there have been already many ASEAN meetings about transnational issues including security threats coming from transnational non-state actors, but in the end she confessed that “But as to whether this concern will become part of the main agenda in the ASEAN-China relations or not, I don’t know.”

This confession, I think, is worth contemplating now, considering the existence of Uyghur Muslim minority issues in China and the threat to the Chinese government as expressed in ISIS media outlets.

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