South China Sea: Asean’s exit strategies

Posted on July 29, 2012

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Asean must find a new bottle to put the Genie back.

Otherwise, the tension in this rich maritime region will increase further leading to confrontation – a lose-lose situation the region cannot afford to have. For the past three weeks, Asean has been kept in a suspensing wire – swirling around showing its ugly underbelly. To manage the crisis, all concerned parties must commit to the highest political will. Some necessary steps…

First of all, the Asean chair must continue its effort to issue the abortive joint communique as soon as possible because many important decisions are being held up. For instance, the name of next Asean secretary general, Le Luong Minh, must be submitted for a formal approval from the Asean leaders in mid-November. Failure to do so, Asean could face a new leadership crisis. The problematic paragraph on the South China Sea obviously needs to be refined further in the language that is acceptable to all Asean members. In this case, the Asean chair, Vietnam and the Philippines must meet face to face and refresh their wordings to ensure a consensus text. The statement on six-principle on the South China Sea worked out by Indonesia was useful as well. It could be collaborated or appendixes to the main document.

The Asean foreign ministers must return to their notes again so that the important deliberations could be reflected in black and white. Asean interest must come first. This was not the first time Asean got stuck with such the game of wordsmiths. In the past decades, Asean has successfully played and overcome the wordings regarding conflicts between the Palestine and Israel in the Middle East, India and Pakistan over the Khashmire problem, North Korea and South Korea regarding the Korean Peninsula and finally the last year conflict between Thailand and Cambodia over an Hindu Temple. Whatever Asean decides on the final statement, major powers would accept it and make necessary adjustments on their positions according.

Secondly, the non claimant Asean members must be more pro-active. At this moment, Indonesia stands out as the only member capable of mediating intra-Asean quarrels, thanked to Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa’s initiative and shuttle diplomacy. Under the Suharto government, it would be difficult for Indonesia to perform such task. His predecessors such as Prof Mochtar Kusumaadja and later on, Ali Alatas, Hassan Wirayuda – albeit their seniority and diplomatic skills – were unable to take advantage of such a competitive and stressful condition of today. As the grouping’s most populous member, Inevitably, Indonesia’s increased Asean profile and intellectual leadership would influence the future’s body politics.

Thailand and Singapore used to be in the similar positions, taking active roles. However, they are coping with pressing domestic issues. Thailand, as the coordinating country for Asean-China relations, needs to show to the Asean colleagues that Bangkok can use diplomacy to forge Asean consensus especially at this critical juncture. At the moment, the function of Thai foreign policy has been shaped and twisted to save Thaksin Shinawatra’s interest instead of the country’s as a whole. Singapore has the brain, but not the size as well as the political asset which Indonesia has accumulated since the changeover in 1998.

Thirdly, all claimants need to agree on an ideal model for cooperation knowing full well that the overlapping claims of sovereignty over disputed islands would not be resolved in the foreseeable future. It is imperative that the Asean claimants agreed to follow the successful model of joint Thailand-Malaysia development over disputed areas in the Gulf of Thailand since 1979. The 50-50 split of benefits has already worked in this context. In 2008, based on the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s mantra of advocating joint development first and put aside the sovereignty issue, China and the Philippines agreed to allow their state-owned oil companies to conduct joint seismic survey of their disputed territorial waters. However, Vietnam decided to join the bilateral agreement a few months later with support from the Philippines and China. However, the tripartite arrangement did not produce any desired result which could have been used as a template. If the earlier Philippines-China collaboration proceeded as planned, the overall landscape of present conflict would have been more conducive for peaceful settlement.

Now, without a proper model to emulate, nearly all conflicting parties are asserting their claims, establishing local governments to exercise their sovereignty rights, utilising their long standing historical claims with ancient affidavits such maps and through selective applications of the UN Laws of the Sea. To further compounded the issue, in Vietnam the dispute area is called the East Sea and in the Philippines, the Western Philippines Sea. Deep down, they realized eventually they must soften their positions to end the current stalemate. But it must be done in graceful ways without losing too much face. In Phnom Penh, sad to say though, the chair and key claimants have placed themselves in a corner by virtue of their arguments and nationalistic stands.

Fourthly, Asean should continue to discuss the South China Sea as they have done in the past among themselves and with China, under the Asean plus one formula. Other Asean-lead forums such as the Asean Regional Forum, East Asia Summit and Asean Defence Ministerial Meeting Plus are complimentary to the ministerial one. If Asean decides to duck the issue, fearing China’s wraths, it would dent the grouping’s creditability further. In the upcoming East Asia Summit, leaders can raise any issue of their concerns, with or without consent of Asean. China and Asean need to look back how they broke through the impasse in April 1995 when their relations were at all time low over disputes in Mischief Reefs.

Since all claimants and dialogue partners have expressed strong support of the ongoing process of competing regional code of conducts (COC) on the South China Sea, they should allow the Asean-China senior officials to work on the COC without hindrance. Beijing’s early willingness to negotiate the COC with Asean must be restored. To show goodwill, China also must make clear the guidelines for Asean to use US$500 million of maritime cooperation fund set up last year, especially regarding projects of joint developments and researches.

Finally, to stay and play with the major league, Asean must be prepared. One of the strategies is to increase the capacity of Asean Secretariat. At the moment, it is relatively underfunded and weak, especially on political/security and social/cultural pillars. Asean performs well only over the economic cooperation and integration. Truth be told, while its leaders expressed support to the current effort by Asean Secretary General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan to strengthen Asean Secretariat and other organs, they have never agreed exactly on how the stronger Asean Secretariat would be able to carry out its mandates. Senior officials and the Jakarta-based envoys from Asean speak and act on behalf of their countries. Surin and his staff is not. His tenure is ending in December and Le Luong Minh will take over from January 2013.

Without any clear direction, Asean much vaulted centrality and neutrality could be challenged and subsequently eroded as the dialogue partners are demanding “equal partnership” in all forums beyond their diplomatic pleasantries. The last-minute decision of France, US and UK to postpone the signing of Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone was indicative of the growing interconnectedness between Asean and major powers and the latter’s ability to influence Asean process. Only China and Russia stand ready to sign. According to the article 11, item 9 of the Asean Charter, it is succinctly stated that each Asean member “undertakes to respect the exclusive Asean character of the responsibilities of the secretary-general and the staff, and not to seek to influence them in the discharge of the responsibilities.” Thanked to Surin’s predecessor, Ong Keng Yong, who introduced this clause knowing full well the overall Asean’s psyche and backbone. Until now, none of the Asean leaders, who signed the charter, have done that.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

China reveals its hand on ASEAN in Phnom Penh

For the first time in its 45-year history, ASEAN’s foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communiqué following their annual meeting in Phnom Penh, which ended 13 July.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong (R) talks to Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa (L) during a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Phnom Penh on July 19, 2012. Natalegawa top diplomat is making a Southeast Asian tour in an effort to mend an internal rift within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) group over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. AFP PHOTO / TANG CHHIN SOTHY

What happened? And what does it mean for ASEAN and others with strong interests in the Asia Pacific?

The meeting appeared to be running smoothly. Delegates reportedly spent hours reviewing a substantive agenda that touched on a broad array of concerns ranging from economic integration to political and security alignment, as well as social and cultural cooperation. Even politically sensitive issues such as North Korea, bilateral tensions between ASEAN countries, and the disputes in the South China Sea were discussed.

Problems arose when the time came to draft the joint communiqué. The Cambodian chair, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, delegated the drafting to a committee of four colleagues: Marty Natalegawa of Indonesia, Anifah Aman of Malaysia, Albert Del Rosario of the Philippines, and Pham Binh Minh of Vietnam. The Philippines insisted that the communiqué should reflect the ministers’ discussion of the confrontation between the Philippines and China at Scarborough Shoal, while Vietnam wanted the declaration to address exclusive economic zones (EEZs). The draft submitted to the chair reflected both the Philippines’ and Vietnam’s will.

After taking the draft under consideration, Hor Namhong left the meeting room to consult with outside advisers. He came back rejecting references to the Scarborough Shoal and EEZs, despite multiple attempts to find a compromise. Cambodia argued those were bilateral issues and therefore could not be mentioned in an ASEAN joint statement. Reports — possibly circulated by Chinese sources and later substantiated by those present — suggested that Cambodian officials shared drafts of the statement with Chinese interlocutors.

In the end, ASEAN announced there would be no joint communiqué following the meeting. This was a spectacular failure for the regional grouping and an outcome that seemed to be in none of the 10 nations’ interests.

Superficial analyses of the failure have pointed to internal conflict within ASEAN, particularly between the chair, Cambodia, and the Philippines, which is seeking ASEAN’s support in its rejection of Chinese ‘creeping assertiveness’.

A deeper look reveals an important trend beneath the surface. In fact, what happened in Phnom Penh is critical to understanding what China wants and what China wants to become. The disagreements at both the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting and the ASEAN Regional Forum appear to be an outcome manipulated by China, which considers a weak and divided ASEAN to serve its own national interests.

China seemed surprised when Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, in his opening to the ASEAN meetings last week, emphasised that ministers need to work together to resolve disputes in the South China Sea. Consequently, it seems clear that pressure on Cambodia increased. China had pushed ASEAN countries — particularly the Cambodians — to keep the South China Sea off the agenda at the ASEAN Regional Forum, which was held concurrently with the Ministerial Meeting. China has repeatedly stated that it wishes to deal bilaterally with the South China Sea claimants and does not want these territorial disputes discussed in multilateral fora.

For its part, ASEAN recognises that in addition to advancing ASEAN’s economic integration, member states must work together on issues including the South China Sea to effectively compete with regional giants such as China and India in the coming decades. ASEAN and almost all other members in the East Asia Summit have recognised the importance of the grouping as the foundation of new regional architecture advancing security, political and economic dialogue.

China has revealed its hand on the question of ASEAN unity. It seems to have used its growing economic power to press Cambodia into the awkward position of rebuffing its ASEAN neighbours on one of the association’s most important security concerns. The most important news to come out of Phnom Penh is not about the spat over the joint statement but the indication that China has decided that a weak and splintered ASEAN is in its best interests.

ASEAN must take a clear-eyed view of the message that China sent in Phnom Penh. The organisation should stay the course laid out in the ASEAN charter and strive for political, economic and social integration by 2015.

In the next four years Brunei, Myanmar, Malaysia and Laos will each chair ASEAN. China has clearly focused on these upcoming chairs, and reports suggest that two of those countries were the only ones to support Cambodian efforts to keep the mentions of Scarborough Shoal and EEZs out of the joint statement.

ASEAN and its supporters — including the US and other members of the East Asia Summit — must support the upcoming chairs. ASEAN needs institutional confidence to resist efforts by other countries to advance their own sovereign and commercial interests by undermining regional cooperation. The message from Cambodia is not that ‘ASEAN is in disarray’, but that ‘ASEAN unity is not supported by China’.

Ernest Z. Bower is Senior Adviser and Director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC.

This article was first published here in Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th and K Streets.

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