from Asia Unbound

ASEAN’s Failures on the South China Sea

July 17, 2012

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In the wake of the disastrous break-up of last week’s ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Phnom Penh, at which ASEAN failed to agree to any statement summarizing their position on the South China Sea, even some of the most ardent backers of the Southeast Asian organization have begun to wonder whether ASEAN’s traditional consensus way is now totally defunct. This emphasis on consensus, of course, allows even one country, no matter how small, to block any joint position taken by ASEAN – in this case, probably Cambodia and Laos, which are increasingly close to China, blocking any joint statement that criticized Beijing. But this is hardly the first time the consensus approach has proven utterly counterproductive: ASEAN failed for years to strengthen their charter to include strong new clauses on human rights, almost surely because of the objections of more repressive ASEAN members like Myanmar. ASEAN failed, in the past, to take strong positions even on conflict within Southeast Asia, as occurred in East Timor in 1999, because of this adherence – some might say slavish devotion – to consensus and noninterference, a sharp contrast from some other regional organizations like the African Union.

In recent years, there have always been some ASEAN members getting fed up with consensus. Wealthier states like Singapore have wanted to move faster on economic integration, and on some aspects of economic integration ASEAN has developed into a “two-track” organization similar to the EU, with poorer members going at one pace and wealthier members going at another pace. For the organization to continue to play a sizable role in regional security, as in trade and economics (ASEAN sees itself as the cornerstone of any future Asian regional security architecture), this type of new thinking is going to need to be applied to non-economic matters as well.

ASEAN did indeed draft and sign a new charter in 2007, but it maintained most of the ideals of consensus and nonintervention of the original ASEAN Declaration, though it did commit to creating a “just, democratic, and harmonious environment in the region,” although it gave little clear definition of what ASEAN believed any of these terms meant. It did also announce that ASEAN had set a goal of forming a single market in Southeast Asia for goods, services, and investment. The proposals of Surin Pitsuwan and others could not overcome some ASEAN states’ reluctance to brook any criticism of their internal affairs, even though stronger, richer ASEAN members realized that, without ending this consensual style, ASEAN would never be strong enough to challenge China, and to deal with economic and political crises in Asia.

Because of the obstacle of consensus, ASEAN thus far also has demonstrated little capability to handle either traditional or nontraditional regional security challenges, thus giving major Northeast Asian powers, or the U.S., little incentive to work through ASEAN to handle challenges rather than addressing them unilaterally or bilaterally. Beyond ASEAN’s weak handling of the perpetual smog crisis, the organization also has developed little capacity to combat drug trafficking, human trafficking, pandemic disease outbreaks, terrorism, or other high-priority nontraditional security threats in the Asia-Pacific. This aversion to intervening in any member-state’s affairs has meant that when ASEAN nations have had disputes with each other, let alone China, such as Indonesia and Malaysia’s dispute over the Sipadan and Ligitan islands, ASEAN states do not even trust ASEAN’s nascent institutions, such as the High Council of ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, to solve problems. Instead, Malaysia and Indonesia adjudicated their dispute at The Hague.

Moving forward, ASEAN in the coming years will have to change significantly to remain a major force in Asia, and to avoid embarrassments like the recent foreign ministers’ meeting. In the next post I will explore some potential solutions to make ASEAN more relevant, and proactive, today.