Asean is younger than its member nations, so teething problems as it continues to mature are no cause for alarm
ASEAN’S set pieces following its meetings have become so predictable as to provoke panic when a blip in the set routine appears unexpectedly.
That happened with the anticipated joint communique following the ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh a week ago. This was the first time a communique was not issued, after disagreement over the text between the Philippines and host Cambodia on Manila’s territorial squabble with Beijing.
That was enough to set tongues wagging, pens wriggling and keyboards clacking about a presumed “turning point” in Asean and even speculation about its imminent demise.
Asean proceedings have traditionally been weighed down by diplomatic gobbledygook just because everyone expects such statements to be issued. What later happens in the conduct of member states, however removed from the spirit and content of the communiques, then becomes quite irrelevant.
Yet the substance of statements issued should be more important than the fact of issuing just any statement. After all, Asean is supposed to be more about political process than mere diplomatic procedure.
Therefore, not issuing a collective statement after this month’s pow wow among foreign ministers is better than issuing a meaningless statement just for the sake of issuing something. It makes no sense to produce a statement in the absence of a joint agreement about what it would say.
As it happened, not issuing a joint communique amounts to an indirect statement on the different positions taken by some members, in this case the hotly disputed claims on island territory between the Philippines (and to some extent Vietnam) and China.
Ironically, the Phnom Penh meeting was supposed to consolidate efforts at establishing an Asean community by 2015, as well as to reaffirm blossoming relations between Asean and China.
It may have failed at delivering either, but simply deviating from the norm by not perpetuating a scripted, choreographed and rehearsed custom regardless of circumstances is not a failure of Asean. Nonetheless, the apparent detour from the objectives of this year’s ministerial meeting was enough to turn surprise into shock for many.
Traditionally criticised for saying little and doing even less with boring predictability, Asean is suddenly seen as risking the unprecedented. Its critics should now make up their mind about the nature of their criticism, because they are beginning to contradict themselves.
The other irony concerns the Asean style itself. The regional organisation has long been assessed less by what it says in communiques than what it leaves unsaid, and understood less by what it does than what it obliquely skirts doing.
Thus going by its record, the decision not to issue a communique may be deemed doubly and traditionally Asean. Yet it was taken to be untypical of Asean.
Cynics predicting doom-and-gloom scenarios for Asean forget that its watchword has always been “resilience”, as supported by its near-half-century record. Asean is made of sterner stuff, to which its experience testifies.
But Asean is also not immune to the pitfalls of complacency. Failure to do what is needed now can escalate current challenges and lead to more problems in the future.
For what it is worth, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono swiftly dispatched Foreign Minister Dr Marty Natalegawa to four Asean capitals, including Kuala Lumpur, to try to cobble together some kind of a belated joint communique.
That may be possible but unlikely, since foreign ministers who refused to be accommodating while together at an official meeting would be even less inclined to compromise when back home. Even if such a statement materialises, it would just be “in absentia” of the assembled ministers, now dispersed, and not a statement “posthumous” of Asean.
Meanwhile, news and commentary about the lack of a communique have overshadowed the issues behind it. And it is not only the absence of a communique that can be seen as untypical of Asean.
Manila and Hanoi had come into the meeting room after a recent diplomatic spat with China over competing territorial claims. Despite the ministerial meeting covering various other matters, the Philippines and Vietnam insisted that their problems with China be included in the text of the joint communique.
Cambodia, as host, refused as it saw this as unbecoming and inappropriate. Only half of the 10 Asean members have disputes over island territory with China, with the dispute in question over Scarborough Shoal/Huangyan Island involving only one Asean country, the Philippines.
Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario then openly accused his Cambodian counterpart Hor Namhong of “consistently defending China’s interest.” Point number two in being untypically Asean.
The ill will created extends beyond the scope of any Asean conference. Its import and impact have already spread beyond the few countries involved.
No country can claim victory or savour any sense of satisfaction from these developments, because they work to the detriment of all. There is also the additional risk of some countries misreading the situation to even worse effect.
China had a pie in the face when it began the conference, as an Asean dialogue partner, by celebrating the new priority of taking relations with Asean to greater heights. If it is seeking any consolation from a divided Asean, it will find itself gravely mistaken.
The Philippines is also finding that it has fewer “allies” in this imbroglio than it would have liked. Thailand had already warned it would not let bilateral differences with China upset regional ties with Beijing, while a caucus of retired diplomats in Indonesia criticised the Philippines for being “blunt” and “very un-Asean.”
The other Asean countries are not exactly behind Manila, and likewise some Filipino commentators. Even Vietnam, despite its inter-state disputes with China, has always had quieter, positive inter-party ties as fellow communist nations.
In contrast, the Philippines has only a treaty with the US. That can make matters worse through emboldening Manila in rash actions, or initiating major power conflict in the region.
Now President Benigno Aquino III has passed the handling of the issue from del Rosario to Ambassador Sonia Brady in Beijing to handle more diplomatically. A sense of realism may yet dawn after all.
In the meantime, changes in the region include some that question old ideological allegiances. Diplomats and policymakers need to be sensitive to such developments to respond accordingly.
Not only does Vietnam have serious differences with China, Myanmar may also begin to do so on separate bilateral matters. At the same time, Taiwan increasingly feels at one with China over claims on territory disputed by other countries, such as the one with the Philippines.
Beyond all the conflicting claims, some realities remain.
Asean is only 45 years old as a regional organisation in the global community of nations, so more differences between members are likely to appear in future. These should not be a problem as long as they are manageable.
Disputes are also best settled, or can only be settled, through negotiations or arbitration. Souring the atmosphere by making diplomacy difficult only makes things worse for everyone.
With China, it has been said that upping the ante only strengthens the hand of hardliners in Beijing. Most Asean countries are wise enough to steer clear of that approach, however much of a rush it may give some politicians playing to the gallery at home.
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