Asean Is at a Crossroads

To survive, Asean needs to stay united and collectively develop its diplomatic stewardship to navigate through the waves of uncertainties and turbulences.

Chheang Vannarith | Thursday, 25 August 2016

Regional strategic trust has been eroded. Regional tension is on the rise. Asean is at a crossroads as the region is entering a new phase of uncertainties with high security risks and uncertainties.

To survive, Asean needs to stay united and collectively develop its diplomatic stewardship to navigate through the waves of uncertainties and turbulences.

Asean is embarking on a new journey to strengthen its community building with Asean Community Vision 2025, which aims to build a rules-based, people-oriented, people-centered Asean, a consolidated Asean community and a dynamic, resilient and harmonious community.

However, Asean is facing mounting challenges and issues, which have been mainly caused by the rivalry between major powers, and unresolved and complex maritime disputes in the region.

The South China Sea dispute is a critical test for Asean. The core question is whether Asean can play its relevant role in shaping a regional cooperation framework and regional architecture, and creating a regional norm. Without handling the issue appropriately, Asean risks being further divided.

Asean is not and will not aim to become a supra-national regional entity, which the member states have to largely surrender their sovereignty in favor of regional collective interests. Asean will remain a relatively loose regional organization.

The Asean way, which includes the principles of non-intervention, consensus-based decision-making and quiet diplomacy, has bound Asean members together. Of course, the implementation of the Asean way needs to be more flexible in response to new context and realities.

It is not surprising that Asean is not able to forge a united front in dealing with the South China Sea dispute. The diversity of Asean together with different national interests prevents Asean from taking a bold united stand on the issue.

Institutionally and principally, Asean does not have a mandate to resolve sovereignty disputes. Asean mainly has a convening power to provide a platform for dialogue and mediate the differences or disputes.

Diplomatic tensions between the Asean members have heightened over the years as a result of political projects to change the norm and principles of Asean. Some members are interested in inviting Asean to interfere in territorial disputes.

Cambodia used to approach Asean for intervention in 2011 when there was an armed conflict along the Cambodia-Thailand border, but Asean could not intervene due to consensus-based principle. Thailand at that time did not approve any intervention from Asean, although Indonesia, the then Asean chair, tried to mediate in the conflict.

The tensions in the South China Sea led to the fiasco in Phnom Penh in 2012 when Asean foreign ministers failed to issue their joint communiqué for the first time in 45 years. The Philippines tried to include the Scarborough Shoal stand-off with China in the joint statement.

A similar episode was repeated again in the Lao capital Vientiane last month when there was a strong division among the members on whether to include some sort of reference to the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the joint communiqué. Fortunately, Asean could issue a joint statement after the Philippines agreed to withdraw its request.

The PCA’s ruling is largely in favor of the Philippines over China. Vietnam and the Philippines openly support the ruling, while some other countries are relatively quiet and some are not supportive of any reference to the PCA’s ruling given the fact it is not the Asean’s norm to issue any joint statement in support of international court ruling.

Cambodia was the most vocal against the Philippines’ request to include the PCA’s ruling. Cambodia’s position on the South China Sea is crystal clear – that the disputes should not be allowed to harm hard-earned good relations between Asean and China.

The disputes should be resolved through dialogue and negotiations between and among the claimants. And Asean and China need to work harder to conclude the Code of Conduct (COC).

The COC is expected to be a legally binding document that will manage or restrain the behavior of the parties directly concerned. The COC needs to have an effective enforcement mechanism and disputes management or resolution mechanism. The COC should also include clear statements on the maintenance of the freedom of navigation.

A meaningful and substantial COC can save Asean from being further divided, restore trust and confidence between China and some Asean members, and promote regional peace and stability, which in turn leads to more opportunities for regional cooperation.

The South China Sea dispute is the main stumbling block between China and Asean. They need to closely work together to defuse tensions, while standing firm on an equal partnership based on mutual respect of interests.

They need to strengthen cooperation on sustainable development of the marine resources and coastal community development, scientific research, disaster relief, search and rescue and anti-piracy cooperation.

The future of Asean hangs in the balance. Asean needs to smartly manage the South China Sea dispute and find a stable equilibrium between geopolitical and geo-economic interests.

Although it is difficult to realize, as an association of small and medium-sized countries, Asean needs to advocate for and take concrete steps in promoting a rules-based regional order.

Vannarith Chheang is co-founder and chairman of the Advisory Board of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies.