Guest Column

Asean Struggles to Return Genie to Bottle

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 30 July 2012

Tensions in the rich maritime Asean region are increasingly leading to confrontation—a lose-lose situation the bloc cannot afford. For the past three weeks, Asean has been kept in suspense—swirling around showing its ugly underbelly. To manage the crisis, all concerned parties must commit to the highest political will.

First of all, the Asean chair must continue its effort to issue the abortive joint communiqué 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 and Asean could face a new leadership crisis.

The problematic paragraph on the South China Sea obviously needs to be refined further in language that is acceptable to all members. In this case, the Asean chair, Vietnam and the Philippines must meet face-to-face and refresh the wordings to ensure a consensual text. The statement on the six principles of the South China Sea worked out by Indonesia was useful as well. It could be incorporated or made appendices to the main document.

Asean foreign ministers must return to their notes again so that important deliberations can be reflected in black and white. Asean’s interests must come first. But this is not the first time Asean got itself entrenched in such game of wordplay.

In past decades, Asean has successfully overcome tricky phraseology regarding conflicts between Palestine and Israel in the Middle East, India and Pakistan over the Kashmir problem, North Korea and South Korea regarding disputed territory and finally the conflict last year between Thailand and Cambodia over the Preah Vihear Hindu Temple.

Whatever Asean decides in the final statement, major powers can accept it and make necessary adjustments accord to their positions.

Secondly, the non-claimant Asean members must be more pro-active. At the moment, Indonesia stands out as the only member capable of mediating intra-Asean quarrels, thanks to Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa’s initiative and shuttle diplomacy.

Under the Suharto government, it would be difficult for Indonesia to perform such a task. Natalegawa’s predecessors Prof. Mochtar Kusumaadj, Ali Alatas and Hassan Wirayuda—despite their seniority and diplomatic skills—would not be able to take advantage of the competitive and stressful conditions of today.

As the grouping’s most populous member, inevitably, Indonesia’s increased Asean profile and intellectual leadership can influence the future body politic.

Thailand and Singapore used to be in a similar position and took active roles. However, they are coping with pressing domestic issues. Thailand, as the coordinating country for Asean-China relations, needs to show bloc 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 interests instead of the country’s as a whole. Singapore has the brain, but not the size as well as the political assets 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 will not be resolved in the foreseeable future. It is imperative that the Asean claimants agree 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 Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s mantra of advocating joint development first and putting aside the sovereignty issue, Beijing and the Philippines agreed to allow their state-owned oil companies to conduct joint seismic surveys 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 the desired result which could have been used as a template. If the earlier Philippines-China collaboration proceeded as planned, the overall landscape of the present conflict would have been more conducive for a peaceful settlement.

Now, without a proper model to emulate, nearly all conflicting parties are asserting their claims, establishing local governments to exercise their sovereign rights, utilizing their long-standing historical claims with ancient affidavits such as maps and selective applications of the United Nations Laws of the Sea.

To further compound the issue, in Vietnam the disputed area is called the East Sea and in the Philippines, the Western Philippines Sea. Deep down, they realize that 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, the chair and key claimants placed themselves in a corner by virtue of their arguments and nationalistic stands.

Fourthly, Asean should continue to discuss the South China Sea among themselves and with China as has been done in the past, under the “Asean plus one” formula. Other Asean-lead forums such as the Asean Regional Forum, East Asia Summit and Asean Defense 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 the 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 in the ongoing process of competing regional code of conducts (CoCs) on the South China Sea, they should allow Asean-China senior officials to work on the CoCs without hindrance.

Beijing’s early willingness to negotiate the CoCs 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 funds set up last year, especially regarding projects of joint developments and research.

Finally, to stay and play with the major league, Asean must be prepared. One of the strategies is to increase the capacity of the Asean Secretariat. At the moment, it is relatively underfunded and weak, especially on political/security and social/cultural pillars.

Asean performs well only over 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 the 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 Jakarta-based envoys from Asean speak and act on behalf of their countries. Surin and his staff are not. His tenure is ending in December and Le Luong Minh will take over from January 2013.

Without any clear direction, Asean’s much vaulted centrality and neutrality could be challenged and subsequently eroded as the dialogue partners demand “equal partnership” in all forums beyond their diplomatic pleasantries.

The last-minute decision of France, the 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 processes.

Only China and Russia stand ready to sign. According to 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.”

Thanks 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.

This article first appeared in the Bangkok-based The Nation newspaper. Kavi Chongkittavorn is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group and his views do not necessarily reflect those of The Irrawaddy.