Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Asean and Regional Security

Asean is closely mirroring a growing trend worldwide. As the world is becoming more complex and interdependent, and as power is moving away from the West and state-based actors more generally, regional institutions and organizations in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia have become more prominent in world politics. Asean has demonstrated its importance in helping to foster and sustain economic development, the regional and world economies, a rule-based world order, and regional and international cooperation.

A primary example of the above achievements is Asean’s ambitious push to form an economic community (AEC) in 2015. Modeled after Europe’s economic project, this community aims to pool the economic power of southeast Asian countries, making Asean an economic powerhouse, potentially a peer competitor to regional giants India and China. How? As Akira Moretto points out:
The Asean Economic Community lays the groundwork for the establishment of a single market and a single production base, characterized by equitable development from all members. The Asean Economic Community will essentially serve as a platform for free trade across Asean nations, more or less eliminating the import duties that currently protect local producers, and will permit the circulation of goods throughout all member countries.

Of course, Asean faces some obstacles along the way toward economic integration. In terms of economic capacity and organization, national infrastructure, and political and legal systems, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar currently do not function as effectively as the other Asean countries. These countries could easily lag behind in implementing all of the requirements for the new economic community, which would thereby slow down economic integration within the entire community of Asean countries. Moreover, according to Subash Pillai, Asean's director of market integration: "Early [economic] achievements were based on low hanging fruit ... The process of transposing regional commitments into national laws is the biggest (challenge)."

All of that said, Asean has made good progress in traveling a long and rocky path since its early days in the late 1960s. And now, Empowered and flush with confidence, Asean is trying to strengthen its involvement in regional security. Based on a blueprint formalized in 2009, Asean has agreed to set up a political-security community (APSC) by 2015. This APSC strives "to ensure that countries in the region live at peace with one another and with the world in a just, democratic and harmonious environment."

Sounds great, to be sure, as it is another mechanism designed, at least in theory, to bind Asean countries together, bringing them closer, around a host of shared and mutually agreed upon things, such as rules, norms, ideas, goals, and worldviews. Unfortunately, though, intra-Asean cooperation on politics and security affairs lag far behind cooperation on economic affairs. And as a result, no matter the good intentions of Asean leaders and the reasonableness of the project, an APSC will be much tougher to implement than an AEC. Here’s the problem: Shared ideas and norms and goals and worldviews are more aspirational than practical at the moment, as they really do not exist across all Asean countries. And actually, within Asean, there is quite a bit of discord on these issues.

Never was this more evident than at last month’s Asean ministerial meeting (the AMM). In July’s conference of Asean foreign ministers in Cambodia, Asean attempted to address the knotty South China Sea disputes involving several Asian countries. This effort proved unsuccessful.

Asean countries announced that they had drafted a set of rules, a so-called code of conduct, to manage and regulate the various waterway and territorial claims in the South China Sea. The rub, however, is that Asean must negotiate with China, which is not a member of the bloc, to finalize the code and make it operational. But so far, Asean countries have not agreed to embark on negotiations on these rules with China. And there is no telling whether that will happen.

Consider this: Ian Storey points out that:

On July 9, Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying had indicated to ASEAN foreign ministers that China was willing to start talks on a [code of conduct] in September. Two days later, however, as ASEAN wrangled over their final communiqué, Foreign Minister Yang seemed to rule this out when he stated discussions could only take place "when the time was ripe" (Straits Times, July 11). At present ASEAN and China are not scheduled to hold any meetings on the [code of conduct].

And if China does sit down with Asean to discuss the code of conduct, Beijing will certainly look to water it down, rendering any negotiations and agreements essentially meaningless. After all, it is well known that China opposes any attempts to internationalize the South China Sea claims and disputes. Instead, China will only discuss these issues bilaterally, on an individual basis, between Beijing and each of the countries making claims to parts of the South China Sea.

The South China Sea issue caused so much dissension within the bloc that the meeting ended without a customary communique, something that has never happened in the history of Asean.

True to Indonesia’s policy goals of serving as a regional mediator, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa tried to broker a deal to resolve the intra-Asean differences. Natalegawa spearheaded 18 different versions of the communique, in a laborious effort to mollify the concerns of various Asean countries.

But despite these efforts, the attempts at a communique finally broke down amid squabbles between Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. In short, Vietnam and the Philippines wanted the communique to reference the recent China-Philippines deadlock at the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Meantime, Cambodia, a friend and ally of China, blocked all moves to mention anything about the events at the Scarborough Shoal.

The Philippines were not pleased. Its ministry of foreign affairs issued a statement highly critical of Cambodia for "consistently opposing any mention of the Scarborough Shoal at all" and for thwarting efforts to complete and publicly release a mutually agreed upon communique.

In response, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong declared that "we issue the joint communique without mention of the South China Sea dispute ... but some member countries repeatedly insisted to put the issue of the Scarborough Shoal....I have told my colleagues that the meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers is not a court, a place to give a verdict about the dispute."

Further, Hor claimed Cambodia has not taken sides in the South China Sea disputes. And he deflected blame over the failure to finalize a communique, saying that the entire bloc of Asean countries is responsible for the fiasco.

But the story did not end here. And once again, Indonesia played a valuable role. A few days after the AMM, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono dispatched his trusted go-to troubleshooter foreign minister Marty Natalegawa to five Southeast Asian capitals in an effort to restore Asean unity and cohesion. According to Natalegawa: "Indonesia took the initiative to recalibrate ASEAN through the 36-hour effort, shuttle diplomacy, visits and working the phones and we can now reach a common position again."

His time and effort resulted, finally, in a 6-point statement, one that excluded the most heated and controversial issues. This statement revealed that Asean countries agreed to "draft and implement a regional code of conduct, respect international law and exercise self-restraint."

Although Indonesia was able to help Asean salvage some face, great damage has already been done. What we are now seeing is a bloc that is polarized, at least on security affairs, by the rise of China. Through anonymous interviews with Reuters, the exact extent of the tensions within Asean has fully come to light.

"It was one of the most heated meetings in the history of ASEAN," one diplomat said. Another described Cambodia, which holds the revolving ASEAN chairmanship this year, as "the worst chair", and said China had effectively bought its loyalty and that of some other states with economic largesse.
What are the implications of the above series of events?

1. If Asean and China cannot finalize the code of conduct anytime soon, the entire region is at risk of further contentious naval standoffs in the South China Sea. And the more that these incidents occur, the greater the chances for militarized conflict. Let’s face it: as these incidents have manifested themselves over time, the involved parties have become increasingly exasperated and distrustful of others. This has contributed to an escalation of rhetoric and activities in the South China Sea, to the point that we are now routinely witnessing naval crises in the waters.

For instance, as pointed out by Manuel Mogato and Stuart Grudgings, "[l]ast month Beijing said it had begun ‘combat-ready’ patrols around waters claimed by Vietnam after voicing strong opposition to a Vietnamese law asserting sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands."

Further adding to these difficulties, according to Mogato and Grudgings, is that simmering nationalism is narrowing the likelihood that a code of conduct eventually gets finalized. Public sentiment in China, Vietnam, and the Philippines says that citizens do not want their leaders to back down or to forgo historical claims. This only makes compromise more difficult and agreements harder to reach, all while keeping the status quo intact.

2. The dissension within Asean raises serious questions about the bloc. Indonesian Foreign Minister Natalegawa summed it up nicely when he said, "How can ASEAN play a central role if it doesn't have a common position?" Importantly, deep and protracted disagreements threaten Asean on a number of levels. In particular, they unwind cohesion and any sense of community within the bloc, diminish the prospect of integration, and impair Asean’s ability to function as a problem-solving entity in southeast Asia and in Asia more generally. Should these things continue to occur, as happened in the AMM, Asean will find its image and status sharply tarnished.

3. China has emerged a winner. Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy, argues that "[t]his is the first major breach of the dyke of regional autonomy....China has now reached into ASEAN's inner sanctum and played on intra-ASEAN divisions." And if China can do it once, considering it has Cambodia in its corner, it likely can do it again when future opportunities arise. In the short-term, Chinese moves can restrain Asean’s ability to project power and influence. But more ominously, over the long-run, Beijing could conceivably possess enough leverage over Asean so that the bloc is effectively a tool of Chinese foreign policy. Asean leaders must be vigilant of these possibilities, if they want to preserve any sense of independence and credibility for the bloc.

4. We also must wonder whether tensions and disagreements over security issues will bleed into (slightly) less sensitive areas like economic cooperation? Will they block attempts at economic integration? Or can Asean countries push back against this? Above all, as my colleague Yohanes Sulaiman points out: "Asean countries must have enough political will to stay together and turn Asean into a binding organization; otherwise, it faces disintegration. Therefore, the Phnom Penh summit should be used for introspection and possibly a great time to think of the future of Asean itself."

*UPDATE: This is an early draft of a section of a recently completed conference paper. The conference will be held in September, in Jakarta.

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