Asean is caught between the devil and the South China Sea.
It is confronted by two imperatives, the first being the demands of its unity, centrality, credibility and claims to becoming a community with a global outreach. These are bedeviling demands on its performance. They whip the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to be creative, innovative, audacious.
If Asean ignores them it might as well kiss goodbye the driver’s seat in the express bus of the larger East Asian region.
The second comprises the demands of stability and comfortable relationships. These prompt Asean to sweep problems under the rug, to portray a simmering cauldron of potential conflicts as a calm lake where no wind blows. And when there is an elephant in the room, not to talk about it.
Much of Asean’s life has been spent catering to the second set of demands. But there have been times when Asean boiled with intellectual ferment, took bold initiatives and credibly asserted its centrality in the evolving regional architecture of East Asia. The latest Asean Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh during the second week of this month isn’t one of them.
What happened in Phnom Penh? I wasn’t there so I don’t know the details of that fiasco but I have heard enough from those who were there to form a scene in my mind. In that scene, 10 foreign ministers were in a room with two elephants. Nine of the 10 wanted to comment on the pachyderms. One, the chairman, would not even look at them.
One elephant was the discussion by the foreign ministers of the Scarborough Shoal — which the Philippines wanted reflected in the paragraph on the South China Sea in a joint statement. In the second week of last May there was a standoff between Philippine and Chinese ships near the shoal, which both countries claim. It’s not the standoff that the Philippines wanted mentioned but the discussion.
The other was a reference to exclusive economic zones and continental shelves, proposed by Vietnam. Earlier, Vietnam also had a run-in with China in an area claimed by both Vietnam and China.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa tried valiantly to formulate a paragraph that would be acceptable to all, but finally the chairman decided that since the Philippines insisted that there must be a mention of the discussions on the shoal, he would not issue a joint statement.
He argued that these issues, being bilateral, had no place in an Asean statement — never mind the long-established consensus that bilateral issues with regional repercussions, like the border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia itself, could be addressed at the regional level.
Since it is well known that China is loath to discuss the South China Sea in multilateral forums, the decision has been widely interpreted as a diplomatic coup by China at the expense of Asean. For the first time in Asean’s 45-year history, no statement came out of a regular ministerial meeting. But soon enough, Marty launched a 36-hour shuttle-and-phone diplomacy that finally produced a joint statement on six basic principles — non-controversial and already long agreed upon — aimed at ensuring peace in the South China Sea. That demonstration of unity repaired Asean’s damaged reputation for now.
But it will take more than Marty’s extraordinary diplomatic skills to ensure Asean’s long-term redemption. Ultimately, Asean must redeem itself by grabbing the devil by the horns and doing what it has to do. It must find ways of ensuring its own unity based on its collective interests, regardless of the wishes of any partner, no matter how powerful — whether it be China or the United States.
And when there’s an elephant or two in the room, Asean must have the collective courage to at least give them a nod.