Guest Column

Key Players Holding Asean Hostage

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 16 July 2012

After Asean foreign ministers failed to issue their usual joint communiqué last week, an oft-asked question has become—which countries were holding it hostage?

There are many choices to pick from—a) Asean claimants to the South China Sea; b) Asean non-claimants; c) The current Asean chair; d) The US; e) China; or f) all of the above.

Here are possible explanations for each answer.

For a), there are many reasons. Asean claimants are divided and lack unity—the bloc weakest point. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei seldom hold meetings among themselves to discuss a common strategy.

Kavi Chongkittavorn
Kavi Chongkittavorn
Kavi Chongkittavorn

Back in 1995 they used to support and look out for each other. But as national stakes increase, their cooperation is shrinking. However, when they deem fit, they still use Asean as a front to counter external pressure. This time around in Phnom Penh they each went on their own to protect their respective turf in contrasting ways.

For the first time in the Asean’s 45-year history, the joint communiqué was not release because there were too many differences regarding the South China Sea disputes. Foreign ministers from claimant members all pushed for their own chief objectives. Previously they were more resilient.

The Philippines wanted their dispute with Beijing over the Scarborough Shoal to be included in the final communiqué, while Vietnam did not budge regarding its own version of China’s recent alleged violations of its exclusive economic zone.

Malaysia, one of the most critical voices of Asean claimants in the past, went missing in action this time around. Brunei was quiet and appears to be waiting for its turn as the Asean chair next year.

Such divergent views provided an ideal opportunity for the Asean chair, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, to go for a kill and cut short the whole debate. He proposed that the claimants should refer collectively to all incidents raised as “recent developments in the South China Sea.” Take it or leave it.

But nothing happened. It was very interesting why he was not in the mood to find common ground—the virtue normally displayed by all previous Asean chairs. At the last minute, Philippine Foreign Minister Roberto de Rosario even softened his wordings with an offer of just mentioning “the affected shoal.” Asean leaders must now be seriously pondering what will happen when the region’s longest reigning leader, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, chairs the November summit.

It was clear for those who opted for answer b) that non-claimant countries other were equally problematic. There are two kinds of non-claimants—those who are concerned parties and those who are not.

The concerned parties are Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. This trio wants to see progress but is now caught in a dilemma as their views and positions could impact on the future of Asean and the whole gamut of Asean-China relations. Singapore stressed from time-to-time that as concerned parties in the disputes, both within the Asean and international contexts, they must seek to ensure the freedom and safety of the sea lanes.

Indonesia, which also wants Asean to show solidarity over the dispute, acted similarly. Thailand’s position is a bit tricky and depends who is the “real” foreign minister, which is still very confusing. These core members backed the issuance of a separate statement on the South China Sea at the ministerial meeting.

But the idea was later quashed as the Asean chair said that both China and the Philippines held bilateral talks and tension over the Scarborough Shoal, or Huangyan Island, had calmed down. So there was no need for such a statement.

Thailand, which is a coordinating country for Asean-China relations for 2012-2015, was lobbied hard by both China and the US for support on their positions. There was even a suggestion that if there was such a statement on the South China Sea, both China and the Philippines should be mentioned and deplored for heightening tension.

The explanation for choice c) is that the Asean chair at this year’s meeting is a veteran politician who knows exactly when and how to act. But this time Hor Namhong managed to block the joint communiqué—this will be his legacy.

His actions upset several foreign ministers attending the meeting. Reporters widely quoted Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa’s comment that he was “disappointed” with the outcome and some Asean members acted “irresponsibly.”

Of course, he did not mention Cambodia by name. It remains to be seen how this will affect the role of Indonesia as an observer in the Thai-Cambodian dispute over the Preah Vihear/Khao Praviharn Temple. There was very little progress on this matter when Indonesia served as chair last year.

In the next two years, Brunei and Burma will succeed Cambodia as Asean chair in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Truth be told, both countries supported Cambodia on the South China Sea issue. Although Brunei is one of the Asean claimants, the oil-rich country has never stated its position outright amid the squabbling.

But Brunei and Burma, officially known as Myanmar, have distinctive positions that the overlapping claims should be settled among the claimants through dialogue and without the use of force. Such views augur well with China’s long standing position.

For answer d), the reasons are simple. Everybody knows the US has shown more support for Asean despite the cutting of its future defense budget. With troop numbers dwindling in Afghanistan, the US is shifting attention to the Asia-Pacific, which could be the next battleground. The Pentagon plans to increase troop levels from the current 50 percent to 60 percent over the next decade.

Where will be these extra American troops make their home base or rotational bases? With the US becoming more enthusiastic in association with ongoing Asean efforts on security matters, some bloc members are feeling gung-ho while others are decidedly uneasy as they know they could become pawns in the big power games. After all, Southeast Asia will remain in China’s backyard.

Those who picked answer e) are unlikely to be Chinese. Throughout the Asean ministerial meeting, the Chinese media lambasted the Philippines for holding Asean hostage and wondered aloud why member states allowed such behavior.

Interestingly, however, only a few Chinese commentators mentioned Vietnam. The South China Sea row comes at the time when Beijing is promoting a new diplomatic approach of peaceful development. This will be further consolidated as a plan for regional harmony after the government’s new leadership becomes settled later this year.

Therefore, Beijing does not understand why Asean would allow the Philippines and Vietnam to turn things upside-down regarding Sino-Asean relations. China has already placed relations with developing countries in Southeast Asia as its number one foreign policy priority after South China Sea disputes.

China’s ties with major powers—especially the US, Russia and Europe—have largely been predictable and stable. However, now any tensions between China and Asean could harm their relations with these global players.

Finally, the last explanation f) is largely self-fulfilling. All of the above mentioned players have effectively held Asean hostage one way or another. Many decisions are now stuck because there was no joint communiqué to officially state their deliberations.

All players have used Asean as a toy towards their own benefits, utilizing the rhetoric and tactics that member states are familiar with. The Asean chair knows full well his powers to shape the agenda and content and he exercised these with prudence.

Likewise, Asean claimants and non-claimants understand deep in their heart that they will never be able to unite again on a common position regarding the South China Sea as in March 1995. That was why the Philippines has taken all necessary steps to boost its own position, including increased defense cooperation with the US, much to the chagrin of other Asean members.

The US and China will compete, confront and cooperate within the Asean framework. In the past, nobody was worried about such engagements because Asean spoke with one voice. From now on, all hell could break loose. Best of luck Asean.

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.