Our Head of ASEAN Studies Program, A Ibrahim Almuttaqi was quoted in The Jakarta Post's on 'Thawing out Cold War declaration, ASEAN sets stance in great powers rivalry.' Read below for the full article:

Thawing out Cold War declaration, ASEAN sets stance in great powers rivalry

Top ASEAN diplomats reiterated the region's neutrality in a statement on ASEAN Day on Sunday, citing a declaration made during the Cold War and warning that rising geopolitical tensions could bring "detrimental ramifications" to the region.

While it did not mention the United States or China, the statement appeared to be addressed to the two powers, whose rivalry has become increasingly tense and has had political and economic consequences in Southeast Asia, coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ASEAN statement, issued at the request of Indonesia, reaffirmed "the importance of upholding the purposes and principles of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia [TAC], the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality [ZOPFAN] Declaration and the Declaration of the East Asia Summit on the Principles for Mutually Beneficial Relations".

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi has been communicating with her ASEAN counterparts about the geopolitical developments in the region since late July, according to her office, and was responsible for raising the ZOPFAN and TAC principles.

ZOPFAN is a Cold War-era ASEAN document that was signed by the association's five original members - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand - in 1971. Nations that have joined the body subsequently have acceded to the agreement automatically. The agreement sought, with delayed success, to remove US and Soviet military bases from the region.

The TAC is a peace treaty that aims to promote regional security and stability among member states and ASEAN partners. It was signed by the leaders of the original member states in 1976, followed by later members. ASEAN partners began signing the treaty in 2003, with China and India being the first to do so. The US signed it in 2009.

Retno brought up the two documents while addressing the increasing tensions in the region in a virtual bilateral meeting with Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on July 30.

"Countries that have acceded to the TAC are obligated to respect its principles. I also emphasized that dialogue was always the best way to resolve differences," Retno said after her talks with China.

Retno said she told Beijing that Jakarta would like to keep the South China Sea stable and peaceful and that it was important for all parties to respect international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In a phone call last Monday with her US counterpart, Mike Pompeo, Retno struck a similar tone of peace, adding that an open conflict was not desired by anyone in the region.

"I made a specific point that open conflicts anywhere, including in the South China Sea, would not benefit anyone," Retno told reporters on Friday, referring to her phone call with Pompeo.

Last month, Pompeo cited a 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that rejected China's claim to areas within the "nine-dash line", which encompasses waters in the South China Sea claimed by other adjacent countries. Beijing responded by calling the move "external interference".

Pompeo has doubled down on his policy with a campaign against what he has called Beijing's "maritime empire" in the South China Sea. Last week, he contacted several counterparts in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Singapore and four claimants to portions of the disputed waters: Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam and the Philippines.

In the Saturday joint statement, all 10 ASEAN foreign ministers reiterated their commitment "to maintaining Southeast Asia as a region of peace, security, neutrality and stability," and called on all countries "to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes".

They also called on countries to refrain from the threat or use of force and to resolve differences and disputes by peaceful means in accordance with international law.

Ibrahim Almuttaqi of The Habibie Center's ASEAN studies program said ASEAN ministers were addressing a situation that was perhaps reminiscent of the Cold War era, when regional peace and stability were under threat.

"It is difficult not to assume that the statement was connected to recent developments in the South China Sea, including the US' more outspoken stance, Secretary Mike Pompeo's efforts to call various ASEAN ministers and China's note verbale to the United Nations," Ibrahim said.

Randy Nandyatama, a senior fellow at Gadjah Mada University's ASEAN Studies Center, said that in addition to managing great powers competition, ASEAN was also facing the challenge of animosity among member states, especially when it came to territorial claims, such as the recent dispute between the Phillippines and Malaysia over Sabah.

"Jakarta has tried to reiterate that ASEAN, with its norms, has been successful at minimizing heated tensions in the region," he said.

[This article was first published in The Jakarta Post on 9th August 2020 and can be found at: here]

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