Guest Column

Asean’s 45th Birthday Woe

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 6 August 2012

On Wednesday, Asean will be 45 years old. Even at this juncture, the earlier words of warnings from a founding father still ring loud and true. “If Asean does not hang together, they shall be hung separately,” warned former Singapore Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam hours after the bloc’s establishment in 1967.

At this juncture, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong is still communicating with his Asean colleagues to work out an alternative document to the failed joint communiqué that would contain key decisions.

Somehow, mutual trust has been lost among the partners which urgently needs to be restored. Up until the weekend, they have only agreed on a list of vital action-oriented outcomes. The problem is that the list, which is still in need of consensus, does not contain the controversial South China Sea dispute.

Within the diplomatic circles of Asean, stories of how Hor Nam Hong snubbed the joint efforts by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegala and Singaporean Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam to save the draft at the last minute have been widespread in past weeks.

Some Asean countries are very concerned that the South China Sea is overshadowing all other regional issues. If this disagreement continues it could spoil the upcoming series of summits scheduled in the third week of November as well as other future plans.

Followed Indonesian President Bamban Susilo Yudhoyono and Singaporen Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s personal appeal to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak recently wrote to him with a strong message that the bloc must not let the South China Sea dispute affect the building of the Asean Community.

Shamefully absent from all these endeavors is Thailand, the current coordinating country of Asean-China relations. However, Hun Sen unwittingly made his position clear by referring to a letter dated July 26 that was dispatched by Hor Nam Hong to his colleagues about the chair’s effort to come up with an internal document that detailed decisions made in the July meeting that failed to mention the dispute.

If Asean is unable to come up with a new document in the next 48 hours, it could represent the darkest chapter of its history. Most importantly, it will reflect badly on the chair as Cambodia earlier pushed to highlight the grouping’s success in the past 45 years. The Phnom Penh Declaration was issued to that effect, which has now been proved hollow.

There have been some informal discussions among officials and academics about the need to come up with the procedural rules to guide a rotating chair in the future. At the moment, there are no clear regulations concerning the Asean chair and its relations with other organs and how the Asean secretary-general and its staff can be of assistance.

The Asean foreign ministers took for granted that they would be able to form a consensus on any issue, albeit with disagreements, as in the past four decades. But the Phnom Penh incident changed all that.

More importantly, there must be a review of the position of secretary-general and the secretariat for the benefit of coordination and cross-sector cooperation. Indeed, disagreements among the Asean members over the maritime dispute have added urgency to the various recommendations submitted last year by Secretary-General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan.

In his special report concerning challenges facing Asean and its secretariat to Indonesia, which chaired the bloc last year, he urged Asean leaders to spell out clearly various roles and duties of each constituent organ and how they relate to each other.

After the Asean Charter came into effect in 2008, new organs were created to help the member countries adhere to numerous Asean agreements and commitments. These were the Asean Coordinating Council, Asean Political-Security Council, Asean Economic Community Council, Asean Socio-Cultural Council and the Committee of Permanent Representatives among others.

At the same time, the position of secretary-general has been conferred as the chief administrative officer of Asean with a ministerial rank. Surin was the first the Asean head with a ministerial rank before serving in the secretariat. That helps explain why Surin’s successor, Le Luong Minh from Vietnam, is a vice-foreign minister.

Soon the Asean leaders will have to decide whether the Asean Charter needs to be reviewed in order to improve decision-making efficiency within the organization. Following the charter’s coming into force, member countries adopted a list of supplementary agreements, which continue until today.

As long as these negotiations are left incomplete, the flow of operations at various levels within Asean will not be smooth. The lack of clarity on the roles and relationships among the various organs caused serious structural problems in running day-to-day activities.

Here are some important questions that Asean leaders must address: Is the secretary-general the only Asean representative with ministerial rank? Given his/her wider access to summits and ministerial meetings including G20 and other global fora, is the secretary-general distinctive from other ministers in Asean? If so, what sort of value do member governments attach to the unique perspective of Asean articulated by the secretary-general?

It is an open secret that Dr. Surin has tried consistently to raise these pertinent issues in the past two years to pave the way for a more efficient secretariat in the future. Indonesia and Thailand have been supportive of his endeavors.

But deep down, other more conservative members want continued ambiguities to reign because whenever there are controversies, the Asean leaders or ministers will have the final say. Even though Asean is more integrated than before, there is no plan to allow the Asean chief to speak on its behalf.

As such, new and existing programs and activities could come to a halt if their decisions are not put into official records such as the case in Phnom Penh. As a rule-based organization, Asean needs to review its charter and undertake further bold reform efforts.

Brunei, the Asean chair next year, must seize the initiative now. Surin’s recommendations should also be given full support as he knows firsthand about the organization’s potentials and pitfalls from five years’ experience. Without these reforms, Asean will be plagued with growing national interests depleting common goals which will further weaken the bloc as a whole.

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.