ASEAN in crisis: Divided we stagger

Posted on August 17, 2012


Can Indonesia heal the deepening rifts in South-East Asia?

FOR decades the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has led a largely blameless existence, untroubled by the glare of publicity as it gently sought to bring coherence to a region of enormous political and economic differences. Not for ASEAN the highs and calamitous lows of, for example, the European Union. All that has now suddenly changed. On its 45th birthday newspapers and blogs are at last paying ASEAN plenty of attention, though marked more by despair than praise. Some even question its very survival.

The cause of the furore is the widening division in the ten-member grouping over China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea. The division was laid bare publicly at a meeting last month of ASEAN foreign ministers in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. For the first time in its history ASEAN failed to issue a joint communiqué.

Its members could not agree on what to say about China. Broadly, those members with claims in the South China Sea themselves—Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, supported by Singapore and Thailand—want ASEAN to register serious concerns over what they see as China’s belligerent actions to enforce its claims in the waters of the South China Sea and over the Spratly, Paracel and other islands and atolls. However, non-claimants, mainly Cambodia supported by Laos and perhaps Myanmar, are loth to alienate China. They go along with China’s insistence on dealing with the issue with each country in turn. This year Cambodia holds the rotating chair of ASEAN.

Right after the Phnom Penh fiasco, Indonesia’s foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, in a vigorous exercise in diplomacy, tried hard to paper over the cracks. Since then, however, there has been no let-up in the unASEAN-like public rowing. Last week the Philippine government sent the Cambodian ambassador packing. He had accused the Philippines and Vietnam of playing “dirty politics” in their push to put the South China Sea on ASEAN’s agenda. The regional press is full of articles and letters lambasting Cambodia’s stance.

ASEAN members had hoped to get through this crisis by establishing a “code of conduct” for the South China Sea, yet China refuses to discuss this idea until, it says, “conditions are ripe”. Meanwhile, a mood of gloom pervades preparations for the next full ASEAN summit, due in November. This time round, the countries should be able to agree on a common position for public consumption, avoiding another unseemly row. But that still leaves plenty of scope for private grief.

In particular, some diplomats wonder whether Cambodia is now irretrievably in the pocket of China. If so, it would be an end to the famous “ASEAN consensus” by which the organisation makes decisions. Cambodia relies more than most in the region on Chinese investment and other blandishments. It is now expected to do Beijing’s bidding. A Cambodian diplomat says that even his government was surprised by how fast and strongly China pressed it to defend its position at the failed summit. Tiny Laos also depends heavily on Chinese money and goodwill, as does Myanmar. China, as one writer puts it, may have obtained an “outsider’s veto” over ASEAN when its interests are threatened.

The grouping could thus become a victim of a new era of great-power rivalry in the region. Until recently it had been making steady progress in establishing itself as the main forum for pan-Asian dialogue and discussion, hosting the East Asian Summit, for instance, among many other talking shops. Yet now it seems to be caught between a rising China on the one hand and a freshly engaged America, seeking to balance against China, on the other.

In particular, the Philippines and Vietnam now look openly to America for military and diplomatic support as they face up to an assertive China in their sea of troubles. Though Cambodia and Laos have lined up with China, and Myanmar may yet go the same way, Thailand and the Philippines are treaty allies of America, which is also revving up its military engagement with Singapore. The fear is that these allegiances will trump the more abstract attractions of ASEAN, together with its attempts to forge any closer union.

The most obvious potential casualty will be the push to create a European-style single market, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), scheduled to come into effect in just three years’ time. Ian Storey of Singapore’s Institute for South-East Asian Studies points out that of the 132 paragraphs of the unpublished Phnom Penh communiqué only four concerned the wrangle over China’s territorial claims. Many of the rest were about economic and commercial integration. All those have now been lost. It is even less likely that the AEC will start on time, let alone be effective. The wider ASEAN agenda is sinking into the South China Sea.

Only Indonesia might be able to save the day. The regional behemoth provides a home to the ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta, the capital. It alone seems to feel the weight of responsibility to hold the organisation together. Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a senior adviser on politics and foreign affairs to the Indonesian government, argues that the row over the South China Sea “is a good lesson for ASEAN, about living in the real world, with big players and big issues. It’s part of growing up.”

At the moment ASEAN is run on a shoestring. Its members pay paltry sums to keep it pottering along, on the assumption that it would never have to do much. Now, however, some Indonesian policymakers argue that, with the whole notion of regional unity at stake, it is time to beef up the organisation and provide it with the mechanisms, money and manpower needed to argue more forcefully for regional interests. For as Ms Anwar puts it, “if the member countries don’t care enough about ASEAN, why should other powers defer to it?”

The Economist

Whither the ASEAN community?

THE discord over how to deal with China in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea has overshadowed the 45th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which was formed on Aug 8, 1967.

Hanging in the balance is not only whether the 10 member countries can realise their plan to turn the region into one single community in 2015, but also whether there is really a future for Asean at all.

Indonesia has done its share in trying to forge Asean unity in the wake of the failure of the foreign ministers to come to a common position on the South China Sea at their annual meeting in Phnom Penh last month.

As commendable as the efforts of Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa were in salvaging the meeting following his 36-hour whirlwind diplomacy to hammer out a joint final statement, there is no denying that Asean members are deeply divided on this issue.

No sooner had the statement been issued than the Philippines and Cambodia were attacking one another once again.

Asean failed in the most serious test so far on its way to becoming a real community.

Some member countries are more interested in turning to outside powers, or even in bringing in outsiders, to address the South China Sea disputes.

They obviously have little or no trust in Asean capacity or Asean ability to speak with one voice on this issue.

We already had a glimpse of this mistrust among Asean members in 2011 when Thailand and Cambodia turned to outside forces to mediate their border dispute.

Asean’s limitations come from its outdated modes, firstly in its decision-making process through consensus and secondly its policy of non-interference in the affairs of other members.

We have seen how the Myanmar junta slowed down the entire Asean integration process by taking a long time before allowing a modicum of freedom for its people.

Asean’s silence in the face of recent violent ethnic conflicts in Myanmar between the Rohingyas and Rakhines also shows the group’s virtual impotence.

Unless these two obstacles are resolved, we are likely to see a dysfunctional community from its birth in 2015.

The latest discord over the South China Sea contravenes the spirit which led the 10 Asean leaders to sign the Second Asean Concord in Bali in 2003, a milestone agreement to create a single community, originally by 2020 but later moved forward to 2015.

Recent events, but particularly the division over the South China Sea issue, prove that Asean may be over-ambitious in its community target.

The Asean community project of raising the countries and peoples in this part of the world to be on par with the rest of the world in the competitive global environment is a worthy and noble cause.

The rapid economic rise of China and India since the 1990s has given the Asean community idea a greater sense of urgency.

South-East Asian leaders rightly decided in 2003 that the way forward for the region was to unite, to speak with one voice in regional and global affairs and to integrate and become a single community.

But is the whole really greater than the sum of its parts? Unfortunately not when Asean is as divided as it is today.

Forging unity has its price, but Indonesia should not bear most or all of the costs, certainly not when the other members are failing to contribute their fair share. Not everyone has lived up to their commitments to Asean.

Indonesia, meanwhile, has continued to put its faith in the group by consistently making Asean the cornerstone of its foreign policy. Being the largest member in the group carries certain responsibilities.

Indonesia, dating from the Soeharto years until now, has provided the necessary leadership as well as many of the diplomatic initiatives, not to mention resources, to turn Asean into one of the world’s most successful regional organisations.

But there are limits to what Indonesia can do in Asean, and the recent behaviour of some Asean countries tells us that we may be approaching that limit.

When that happens, Indonesia should rethink its foreign policy paradigm.

In marking the Asean anniversary last week, we can all look back with satisfaction at how the group has served well in fostering peace and development, and with it prosperity for the peoples in the region.

But looking ahead, we have to ask ourselves whether there is still any sense in forging an Asean community by 2015 if everyone now seems bent on going their separate ways.

Asia News Network

Posted in: Politics