Neutral or neutered? Unity and resolve essential for Asean

Posted on July 23, 2012


Reports indicate that drafting floundered on the issue of the South China Sea, where the sovereignty of different islets is disputed among various claimants. The Philippines wished to record that the matter had been discussed, whereas Cambodia, which currently chairs the regional grouping, felt that any mention would compromise Asean neutrality.

The claims in the South China Sea were never going to be resolved by a statement, however worded. As such, the quite unprecedented failure shows up not so much the struggle to deal with a sensitive issue but rather what it may suggest are more systemic concerns about divisions within Asean.

These come precisely at the wrong time, when the group needs to show unity and resolve to create an Asean Economic Community by 2015. It also dents Asean’s credibility as host for dialogues that span not just its own region but a wider footprint, like the newly created East Asia Summit.

Factors of division within the group have been emerging over time. These relate not just to the South China Sea, but more broadly to the roles of the USA and China and such issues as the Mekong River and Myanmar.

The Obama administration’s “pivot” to give more attention to Asia over these last four years has been evident and has largely been well received. But this comes after more than a decade in which China has emerged as the best friend to many.

Given the economic dynamics, there is a sense that China will not go away but will grow in importance. This is especially notable in Beijing’s largesse to some in Asean.

Take Cambodia, the host of the failed meeting.

Over the last decade, Beijing has provided billions for infrastructure, including the building for the kingdom’s Council of Ministers. In April, Chinese leader Hu Jintao made a four-day state visit, and just a month before the Asean Ministerial meeting, a senior Communist Party leader visited Phnom Penh with promises to “take strategic approaches to step up the bilateral cooperation to new heights”.

Given that the US market currently remains its largest trade partner, Cambodia seems to be playing a risky game. Intended or otherwise, the failure at the Phnom Penh meeting is seen as favouring China.

Other Asean members have come to quite different positions. The Philippines has strengthened its US alliance as Manila asserts its claims to areas in the South China Sea. Vietnam has tilted towards America, and the recent visit by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta to Hanoi raises the possibility for arrangements to host an American military presence at Cam Ranh Bay.

What can the small and medium-sized states in Asean do, given these great power dynamics?

There are things beyond their control. Asean could breathe easier if Beijing and Washington DC recognise their interdependence and that the region is big enough for them both. But if the rhetoric of differences grows louder and it comes to push and shove, Asean will be in an invidious position.

Other things are hard but possible. For too long, individual countries’ policies towards China and the USA have been little discussed. Dialogue could help each Asean member understand the other’s concerns and, from this, seek common positions.

Agreeing upon anchor points about the critical relationships with these giants would help Asean maintain centrality.

Last comes what should be do-able and indeed ought to have been done at this last meeting. This is to agree a form of words, a set phrase, about the South China Sea.

Critics will say that papering over differences will not resolve the issue. Of course not, but there are other uses. Think of papered-up forms of words like the “one-China” principle in relation to Taiwan.

While this is open to varying interpretations, it has helped frame a range of differences that is understood (but not conceded) by each party.

Not least, if Asean can reach such a form of words about the South China Sea, then its communiques need not be held captive to a single issue. Noting but setting aside what is unresolved, the group would then be able to go on to deal with the rest of its agenda, where consensus is possible.

Asean has achieved centrality as a kind of default position, and largely because great powers lack sufficient trust amongst themselves. There are, however, still necessary conditions to be of use in this role.

Perfect neutrality is impossible, when some of its members are formal allies with one power, or receive large amounts of high-profile aid from another.

But open and healthy dialogue about the fullest possible range of issues is critical for Asean-led dialogues to remain relevant.

For this, each Asean member must be willing to keep the group’s interest as a whole in view, and not focus solely on its bilateral ties with China or America. Otherwise Asean will not only fail to be neutral, but be ineffective and indeed neutered.

Simon Tay

United Asean Stands or Divided It Falls to China, US

ndonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa speaking at a news conference in Phnom Penh on Friday. July 20, 2012 (Reuters Photo/Samrang Pring)

Even though Asean finally managed to come out with a joint statement following its regional summit last week, a fickle unity will continue to undermine the grouping as long as it fails to address domestic problems in each of its member states, observers have said.

Aleksius Jemadu, dean of Pelita Harapan University’s School of Social and Political Sciences, said that as long as China and the United States could help Asean countries more than they could help themselves, the regional bloc would always face the threat of disunity.

“We can see it clearly in Cambodia’s case,” he said. “[Prime Minister] Hun Sen needs China’s help in developing Cambodia’s economy while Asean offers nothing in regards to this issue. That’s why they will reject any statement they think will make China angry.”

The same is true for the Philippines and the United States, he said.

“For President Benigno Aquino, it would be a domestic disaster if he let China occupy the disputed area [in the South China Sea claimed by both China and the Philippines],” he said. “So US support is very important to him.”

Aleksius said Asean needed to begin addressing real problems, such as the need for economic development in member states, rather than serving as a talking shop.

Hariyadi Wirawan, an international relations expert from the University of Indonesia, agreed that Asean would need to solidify its unity if it wanted to protect its interests in the face of the United States and China, which have the world’s two biggest economies and are seeking to increase their influence in Southeast Asia.

The 10 member states of Asean last week failed for the first time in the grouping’s 45-year history to issue a joint communique at the end of a summit. Host Cambodia had rejected a proposal by the Philippines and Vietnam to make specific references to their separate territorial disputes with China in the statement.

Thanks to some impressive shuttle diplomacy by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, though, Asean states were eventually able to reach a compromise. To make it happen, Marty went on a whirlwind 36-hour tour of the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore to persuade his counterparts to agree on a compromise.

The eventual joint statement, issued on Friday, said the member states had reaffirmed “the non-use of force by parties” in the South China Sea.

China and several Southeast Asian countries have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea. Chinese and Philippine ships have been engaged in a standoff near the disputed Scarborough Shoal since April.

The new statement calls in general terms for the implementation of Asean-promoted principles for the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes.

Indonesia has proposed six basic principles in a bid to quell ongoing tensions, which Foreign Ministry spokesman Michael Tene said had been agreed to by all Asean member states.

Among the principles are for Asean countries to remain committed to the Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea, signed by the disputing countries in November 2002, as well as the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Jakarta Globe

Soul Searching After Phnom Penh

ASEAN must continue to remain a strong force for regional ties in the Asia-Pacific and avoid short-sighted attempts to undermine the bloc’s unity or exploit divisions.

Questions are still being asked about ASEAN’s unprecedented failure to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in its 45-year history at Phnom Penh earlier this month due to disagreements over the South China Sea. Regardless of what transpired at the meeting, it was an embarrassing moment for ASEAN and it raises questions about the ability of the organization to preserve its autonomy and centrality amidst great powers with the potential to dominate the region. If the grouping needs to do some “soul searching” over the next few months, as ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan put it, where should it start?

A logical start should be to try to make some progress on the South China Sea (SCS), since events at Phnom Penh illustrated that intra-ASEAN divisions on the issue can clearly tarnish the organization’s image.

As a first step, the four ASEAN claimants- the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia- should aim to clarify and codify their various South China Sea (SCS) claims in order to present a more unified front to China, as others have advised. Beijing has a proven record of exploiting ambiguity to make contradictory claims in the SCS, some of which have very little basis in international law.

If ASEAN countries make their claims explicit by codifying them in domestic legislation and multilateral frameworks in accordance with international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), they can sort out areas where disputes are particularly intractable and aspects where their opinions converge. The ball would then be in China’s court to clarify the basis for its own claims. As of now, ambiguity on the SCS only allows Beijing to make dubious claims while simultaneously exposing divisions within ASEAN. While ASEAN should continue efforts toward a code of conduct with China, there is no substitute for clarity on this question.

Secondly and more broadly, ASEAN as a grouping should redouble efforts to preserve its centrality and cohesion. The organization is receiving greater international scrutiny these days and it will continue to grapple with tough issues like the SCS in the future. Yet at the same time, much like Cambodia in 2012, the next few years will see ASEAN chaired by smaller or less-developed states (Brunei in 2013, Burma in 2014, Laos in 2016). While these countries are capable in their own right, they may not have the same capacity to drive regional integration or tackle contentious disputes as an Indonesia or Singapore. And while Southeast Asia has other great leaders, it will be difficult to sustain the decade of vigorous and dynamic leadership ASEAN has enjoyed under Secretary Generals Ong Keng Yeong (2004-2008) and Surin Pitsuwan (2008-2012).

Confronting this challenge will require greater efforts on various fronts. For one, ASEAN must move faster on its goal of creating an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by 2015, given that the bloc is behind on several aspects of that initiative. Greater regional cohesion creates a stronger collective identity among all members of the organization and strengthens economic linkages between them, both of which will incentivize putting ASEAN first. But if states choose to “keep to themselves,” as Pitsuwan told the Myanmar Times earlier this year that will only hold ASEAN back. Repeats of Phnom Penh could also be avoided by agreeing on innovative ways to express legitimate disagreements, which will require flexibility from both the chair and other ASEAN countries. And if future crises do occur, solving them may require ASEAN’s older members to demonstrate leadership and innovation, like Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa’s “shuttle diplomacy”’ that led to the organization’s six-point principle agreement on Friday.

Outside actors like the United States and China should continue to support a strong and united ASEAN. Despite its shortcomings, the organization remains the best hub around which to structure a regional architecture that will socialize actors into a set of acceptable norms and behaviors, and guide Asia towards a prosperous and peaceful future. Equally important, they should also resist short-sighted attempts to undermine the bloc’s unity or exploit its divisions, since they will only undermine this shared goal and leave themselves increasingly isolated in a more integrated world.

Prashanth Parameswaran

Nine dragons stir up the South China Sea

“Too many dragons, too much noise.” That is how one Chinese scholar explained constant friction in the South China Sea, where Beijing’s territorial claims are rubbing up against competing claims from several south-east Asian nations.

The latest set-to is with the Philippines. Last month, a Philippine naval ship attempted to detain several Chinese vessels it said were fishing illegally near disputed islands inevitably known by two different names: Scarborough Shoal in the Philippines and Huangyan Island in China. Chinese marine surveillance ships quickly arrived on the scene, preventing the Philippines from making any arrests.

The clash at sea has led to a fractious diplomatic standoff on land. Last week, after angry editorials in some Chinese newspapers demanding the People’s Liberation Army Navy teach the Philippines a lesson, there was even speculation that China was preparing for war. Beijing seems to have pulled back from that bellicose brink. But China has wounded the Philippines in other ways. It has left shiploads of bananas rotting on its docksides, threatening the livelihoods of up to 200,000 Filipino farmers. And Chinese travel agents have cancelled tours to the Philippines, ostensibly on safety grounds.

Manila’s inability to defend what it regards as clear territorial rights has been sorely exposed. Last year, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, the president, admitted rather charmingly that the idea of the Philippines’ ill-equipped armed forces taking on China was like a boxer trying to fight trapped inside a barrel. The problem for the Philippines, as with Vietnam – another country that has rubbed Beijing up the wrong way in the South China Sea – is that China claims virtually the entire strategic waterway. It produced an infamous “nine-dashed-line” map marking the waters it claims – like a huge lolling tongue licking its neighbours’ coastline. In recent years, incidents at sea have escalated, suggesting Beijing is getting bolder. In 2009, Chinese vessels provoked a diplomatic dispute with Washington by surrounding a US survey vessel. Last year, marine surveillance ships clashed with both Philippine and Vietnamese seismic vessels. To some, China’s insistent defence of its (exaggerated) claims is evidence that it is developing the equivalent of a Monroe doctrine in its own back-yard pond.

In his book about what he sees as a Sino-American clash for mastery in Asia*, Aaron L. Friedberg, of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, says China has three foreign policy axioms: “avoid confrontation”, “build comprehensive national power” and “advance incrementally”. Beijing’s stepping up the ante looks very much like “advance incrementally”.

That may be Beijing’s long-term goal. For now, according to an excellent report by International Crisis Group**, a Brussels-based conflict resolution body, the reality may be messier – and more dangerous. That is because a proliferation of agencies – not the Chinese government itself – may be pushing the boundaries of China’s policy. These are the dragons that are “stirring up the sea”. They include Customs Law Enforcement, China Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, the Maritime Safety Administration, China Marine Surveillance, and so on.

“There’s a multi-level game going on,” says Michael Wesley, executive director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, a Sydney-based think-tank, who says competing agencies have an incentive to keep tensions high in order to attract bigger budgets.

“The name of the game has been to use law enforcement as a proxy for the grander sovereignty dispute,” says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, one of the authors of the ICG report.

The “arms race” being conducted by these marine agencies could even be more dangerous than the real thing, she warns, because their ships are more easily deployed and they have fuzzier rules of engagement.

Mr Wesley says China’s long-term goal is to push out of the South China Sea into the wider Pacific. Ms Kleine-Ahlbrandt fears it is only a matter of time before China either dominates the disputed fishing grounds or comes to blows with Philippine vessels. When Deng talked of Beijing hiding its light, he evidently didn’t count on the bright eyes of China’s nine dragons.

David Pilling

*A Contest for Supremacy

**Stirring up the South China Sea (I) (II)