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 communiqué at the end of a summit. Host Cambodia rejected a proposal by the Philippines and Vietnam to make specific references to their separate territorial disputes with China in the statement.
However, thanks to some impressive shuttle diplomacy by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, 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 meet in the middle.
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.
Beijing 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.