Stirrings in the Asean pot

As Vietnamese diplomat and former deputy foreign minister, Le Luong Minh, takes over as the secretary-general of Asean and Brunei assumes the Asean chair for 2013, it’s time to reflect on 2012 — a year when the regional grouping faced many detractions and was not able to make any forward movement on issues critical to its members. While many may see Cambodia’s chairmanship of Asean in 2012 as one of the most divisive, the fact is that Asean’s history is fraught with such discord among its members. Since its inception the grouping has been divided on several issues, including the Asian financial crisis in 1997, the avail flu in 1998 and Cambodia’s entry into Asean.
But last year, regional divisiveness among Asean’s members was seen as being orchestrated by Cambodia which did not allow issues relating to the South China Sea to be discussed. Since July 2012, Cambodia’s role within Asean has become a tightrope walk, with other members feeling increasingly let down, even betrayed. This was evident during the Asean Summit of November 2012, when two issues — the conflict in the South China Sea and the question of human rights — brought Cambodia at loggerheads with other members.
One of the main agendas for the November summit was finalising a code of conduct for South China Sea, an issue pending since July 2012. Though China, during the Asean ministers’ meeting in July, was keen to keep the issue out of the discussion, others, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, were keen to that their concerns be reflected in the joint communique. So it was decided that by November there would be a more cohesive and concerted effort to address China’s aggressive posturing in South China Sea. But in November, Cambodia’s Hun Sen government, as the Asean chair, unilaterally declared that the members had agreed not to internationalise the issue. The Cambodian government had buckled under pressure from China.
It’s clear that the regional dynamics are fast changing. Asean members strongly differ in the way they respond to China’s rise. While some take a softer position towards China, others believe that China still remains the region’s foremost threat and as such are wary.
The second critical issue before the Asean is the question of implementing the Asean Human Rights Declaration, which has been pending since the 2009 summit. During the 2009 Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, the Asean adopted this declaration. But the declaration needed to be reviewed because Asean did not accept human rights in its universal sense — members wanted references to the fact that regional and national factors could be different. Moreover, the process of finalising the 2009 declaration had not included non-state groups, particularly civil society organisations. The absence of civil society groups as a stakeholder left gaps in the declaration. The importance of human rights within the grouping has been stressed often, especially as the Asean covers a political spectrum that ranges from countries that are full democracies to those that are run by authoritarian regimes. While there are bound to be differences over how each member addresses the question of human rights, there needs to be a more concerted effort towards defining this issue in the context of its universal understanding.
This is significant since Cambodia itself is coming up for elections next year. The Hun Sen regime has been repressing political opposition against it and the question of wider representation and participation in the electoral process remains one of the most important areas.
Cambodia has shaken up the Asean dynamics at a time when the regional shifts are reshaping the grouping. Consensus building, which is a core pillar of Asean, has been affected and this makes the member countries more vulnerable to outside pressures. US President Barack Obama’s visit to Cambodia in November 2012, for example, suggested that the US re-engagement with the region is at a critical point. Over the last six months the grouping’s internal cohesion has once again been tested. Cambodia, as the chair of the Asean, could not tune in to the issues critical to its co-members and sent out signals to countries outside the grouping that Asean’s core norms were under stress.
Cambodia’s history with the Asean is marked by three phases. The first phase was at the time of the bloc’s inception, in 1967, when the whole of the Indo-China region, comprising Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, was engaged in a war against American imperialism. Though the Asean was seen as an economic grouping in its early years, geopolitical undertones to its formation were unmistakable. In fact, since the original members of Asean had issues with communist insurgency, it was seen as a non-communist grouping in a region threatened by communism and the domino theory propounded by the US during the Cold War. Cambodia’s close association with China during the Khmer Rouge years once again set it apart in the region. When the Vietnamese intervention took place in Cambodia in 1978-89, the regional schisms came out in the open. The grouping at that time was divided over the Cambodian conflict. Indonesia and Malaysia were more amenable to the Vietnamese position while China was seen as a more difficult regional player. Others, Thailand and Singapore, were wary of the Vietnamese. There was a view that the war could extend to Thailand, particularly because Thailand was seen as a frontline state in the war.
Asean is founded on an informal code with no legal underpinnings to it. This makes it difficult for Asean as a body to rope in members who move beyond its expected norms of conduct. This lack of legality remains a lacuna which impacts the implementation of any decision. While the new Asean secretary-general has reiterated the regional standpoint and said that relevant matters will be discussed, and Brunei has also given its nod to including contentious issues like the South China Sea, the year ahead will be important in terms of addressing the rising challenges in the region and how best to articulate a collective viewpoint for the regional grouping to remain relevant.

Dr Shankari Sundararaman is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU

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