A ship divided, with rough seas ahead ― Yang Razali Kassim
AUG 15 ― On the 45th anniversary of Asean last week, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa expressed optimism that a regional code of conduct to govern behaviour in the South China Sea would be ready by year-end.
In doing so, he signalled Asean’s shift to a new and more active phase to resolve the territorial disputes in the South China Sea by pushing for an early adoption of the long-stalled Code of Conduct (CoC).
Natalegawa’s confidence followed his success in securing an Asean consensus on a six-point statement of principles on the South China Sea late last month after it failed to issue a joint communique at the group’s annual meeting in Phnom Penh.
Cambodia would need to focus on repairing the fissures in Asean so that it can host a credible second summit in November.
By shifting gear towards an early CoC, Asean is also repairing the rift over the territorial disputes between some of its members and China, the region’s emergent power. This has prompted a more co-operative posture on Beijing’s part.
China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, on a visit to Jakarta on August 10, pledged to build mutual trust towards the eventual adoption of the CoC.
At the same time, Malaysia, which Yang also visited, underscored the need for Asean and China to push for an early adoption of the CoC.
Notwithstanding all this, Asean needs to re-forge its unity of purpose and define the direction that it critically requires.
“You can only have an Asean that is central in the region if Asean itself is united and cohesive,” said Natalegawa.
The group cannot afford to lose focus on its big immediate goal: 2015. This is the deadline, just three years away, when the Asean Community is to be realised.
A united Asean is key to its role as a central player in the evolving East Asian and Pacific economic and security architecture.
Asean is not free of troubles as the region enters a period of great uncertainty. The Phnom Penh episode has exposed three concerns, first and foremost being an intra-Asean rupture.
For some time since the expansion of the group to 10 in the late 1990s, there has been talk of a “two-tier Asean”.
One is the Asean core comprising the original five founding members ― Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines, plus Brunei, which joined in 1984.
The other is the new layer of Asean. This comprises four South-east Asian states that were once on the margins of the Asean core ― some even ideologically opposed ― but were incorporated after the end of the Cold War. Collectively they are referred to as the CLMV countries ― Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
The incorporation of the CLMV states was prompted by the vision of Asean’s founding fathers of a unified South-east Asia.
Some members were, however, concerned about too fast an expansion. Could the CLMV countries, being essentially socialist or central-command states, fit into the norm, political culture and values of mainstream Asean?
The regional unifiers were persuasive and won the day.
Indeed, over the following decade, an expanded Asean made its mark on the wider region, paving the way for such initiatives as the Asean Plus 3 (China, Japan and South Korea).
A unified South-east Asia developed such confidence that Asean even pursued the ambitious diplomatic strategy of becoming central to the wider regional architecture, exemplified by the East Asia Summit.
The expansion, however, came with strains.
Firstly, Myanmar’s inclusion, which upset Asean’s Western partners, came at a cost to mainstream Asean. But the diplomatic dividend was a reforming Myanmar, albeit still fragile.
Secondly, Cambodia is proving to be a difficult addition. Since the founding of Asean, members have squabbled over bilateral disputes but never had they resorted to a “shooting war”. For the first time in 2008, however, when Cambodia and Thailand clashed over a border dispute, shots were fired.
The easy and unprecedented slide to armed conflict, harking back to historical animosities, was ominous. Is there a deeper problem between mainstream Asean and outlier Asean?
Evidently, a two-tier Asean is not just talk. The second-tier, as initially feared, has brought in a new set of challenges.
Some argue these are growing pains to be accommodated. But the failure of the Phnom Penh meeting last month to issue a joint communique was reflective of the widening divide within.
No core Asean member in the role of chair would have allowed the annual talks to close without a joint communiqué ― which is an important record of key decisions.
A core Asean member would have resorted to some finessing of diplomatic language in the text to reflect common concerns.
The ease with which the Cambodia chair tossed aside the joint communiqué is, again, reflective of a deeper problem: Do the CLMV countries have the same commitment to Asean and all that it stands for?
The second concern is the impact of this fissure on the creation of the Asean Community 2015. This project is on the brink of falling apart.
Asean Community 2015 now very much hinges on who will chair the group over the next three years. On record, they are Brunei, Myanmar and Malaysia, in that order. Brunei and Malaysia are members of mainstream Asean; Myanmar is not.
Indeed, Myanmar will be steering Asean at a sensitive moment after it briefly withdrew as Asean chair six years ago. Will Naypyidaw be the next to pull a shocker?
The third source of concern is China’s growing intrusion into the foreign policy-making domain of Asean. It is clear that Beijing had leaned on Phnom Penh, a close ally, to influence the handling of the South China Sea disputes in Asean’s joint communiqué.
What China did will only sharpen deep concerns within the region that its rise as an emergent power will be intrusive ― even interventionist. The signs are that the road ahead for Asean-China relations will be as difficult as it will be potentially beneficial.
China has imposed its will on Asean without lifting a finger. All it had to do was whisper in the ear of a regional ally.
Long a dormant source of tension, the South China Sea is proving to be the explosive flashpoint that many fear it is. Asean is sailing into potentially turbulent waters.
Nevertheless, observers point to some redeeming features in the Asean-China relationship. The Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit to the region from August 9 to 13 underscores its growing multi-faceted relations with all Asean members ― from the economic and social to military and security.
Some of the core members, such as Malaysia and Singapore, have larger trade volumes and economic ties with China than the outer-tier countries. Many also have long-standing defence and security cooperation with the United States and other Western powers.
Asean as a whole has economic cooperation arrangements with countries like Australia, Japan and India to further balance China. For its part, Beijing has a stake in Asean’s cohesion, to ensure the region remains a reliable and friendly neighbourhood.
These factors will underpin Asean’s efforts to strengthen its solidarity in meeting the challenges of potential great-power rivalry between China and the US in the region. ― Today
* Yang Razali Kassim is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. An earlier version of this article was published in the July 2012 issue of the Asean Newsletter of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Republic of Korea.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.