Asean: Challenge of creating unity

The recent rift in Asean is a pointer to the fact that the geopolitics of the region has changed and become complex

Over the last two weeks the issue of offshore territorial limits in the South China Sea has once again brought the question of Asean’s unity to the forefront. The regional bloc of 10 countries of Southeast Asia is no new player; it has been in existence since August 1967.

Originating from the Bangkok Declaration, the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) brought regional stability through the method of consultation and consensus and became the underpinning of institutional mechanisms throughout the Asia-Pacific region.
In the recently concluded Asean Ministerial Meetings (AMM), there were sharp differences between member states on how to address the tensions in the South China Sea. China’s claim over this vast area has set it against Vietnam and the Philippines as the three countries race to tap potential oil reserves. The differences widened after April 2012 when the Philippines and China locked horns over the status of the Scarborough Shoal, a group of barren islands in the South China Sea, which each claims as its territory.
China’s posturing and its recent statements that the area around the South China Sea was, in fact, a Chinese dominion has not gone down well with other claimants, especially the Philippines and Vietnam. China stakes its claims on the basis of its past control over this maritime terrain. Growing interests shown in recent time by the US in playing a role in the security of the seas has further hardened the Chinese stand.
In the AMM — an annual meeting of Asean foreign ministers — held in Phnom Penh in the third week of July, the Cambodian government prevented the inclusion of the standoff between the Chinese and the Philippines in the joint communiqué. The Cambodian government did not want its inclusion while the Philippine foreign minister, Albert del Rosario, wanted it and also stated that the Declaration of Conduct of Parties to the South China Sea dispute that was initially agreed upon in 2002 was to be the basis of dispute resolution. According to this declaration, China had agreed not to stake any unilateral claims. However, it backtracked after the region acquired critical strategic importance with renewed efforts by claimant states to tap its rich oil resources.
This is the first time in Asean’s history that a rift has come out in the open. A flurry of diplomatic activity was seen at the recent AMM, which ended with the six-point agenda to address the South China Sea dispute. The agenda says that the 2002 agreement will be the basis of the current maritime dispute management with no use of force, and that a code of conduct in keeping with the UN principles of peaceful conflict resolution will be framed.
Asean has always followed an informal method of consultation and consensus (musyawarah and mufakat). Such a method had been possible because the leaders of the member states have used socialisation as a means of building rapport and in the event of any difference, backdoor diplomatic channels have been successfully used.
The Cambodian stalemate is an example of how Asean handled this kind of divisions. At the height of the Cambodian conflict in the 1980s, the Asean members were divided in their opinion on Vietnam’s role in Cambodia. While Vietnam had been seen as invading its smaller neighbour, opinion varied on the extent of Vietnam’s hegemonic designs. Both Indonesia and Malaysia, which were more wary of China, felt that the Vietnamese position was a geopolitical compulsion of the Cold War era. Moreover, there was a view that the domestic and foreign policy of the Khmer Rouge regime had left little choice for Vietnam but to invade Cambodia. However, consensus being the pivot of the Asean decision-making, all the countries supported the fact that Thailand was a frontline state in the Cambodian conflict and it was agreed that Vietnam would have to withdraw from Cambodia before a resolution was found. This was the crux of Asean’s position during the Cold War.
As the Cold War ended and new members joined Asean, the bloc created space for the entry of Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Vietnam, leading to changed expectations. Another aspect is the economic gap between old and new members, because of which the time-tested method of consultation and consensus has lost its cutting edge.
When issues relating to domestic politics and internal matters began to emerge at Asean meetings, concerns would be expressed over internal matters of other member states. This was a huge shift. In fact, in its 1999 annual meeting the bloc intensely debated over several issues, including the treatment meted out to Malaysain Opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, in that country and the question of Cambodia’s entry into the Asean which again saw the members reach the verge of a vote on the issue, thereby eroding the consensus method.
The recent rift in the bloc is also a pointer to the fact that the geopolitics of the region has changed and become complex. The bloc has always accepted the involvement of external players in Southeast Asia. In fact, major players have mostly been associated with the region’s security, and this is more evident today when the US foreign policy is again turning to Southeast Asia. Observers view this as a response to the growing presence of China, which, in the recent meeting, used its leverage among smaller Asean countries like Cambodia to make its own presence felt in the region. It was Indonesia’s foreign minister Marty Natalegawa who tactfully brought the members around to agree to the six-point agenda on the South China Sea, which would work at establishing a maritime code of conduct between the Asean members and China by November 2012.
The recent rift brings to the fore a need to change the way in which the bloc has functioned till date. The Asean charter says that the basis of the decision-making would be musyawarah and mufakat, but it also stated that where those two approaches do not work an alternate approach would be adopted, which opens the possibility of voting within the grouping. It is time Asean explored the alternative in the current stalemate. Else, it will lose its relevance as a bloc.

The writer is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU

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