The Kingdom of Cambodia, chair and host of the 10 member-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), hosted the second ASEAN Summit in its Peace Palace building at Phnom Penh from July 9-13. The Summit convened its signature assemblage—the 45th ASEAN Foreign Minister’s Meeting (AMM)/Post Ministerial Conference (PMC). Apart from this annual feature, the Summit also saw the participation of ASEAN partners from 17 countries under the aegis of 19th ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), 13th ASEAN Plus Three (APT) and the 2nd East Asia Summit (EAS). On July 12, Catherine Ashton, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission, signed the Instrument of Accession of the European Union (EU) to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC). The TAC is a non-aggression and cooperation pact between ASEAN members and their partners; it is also a prerequisite for membership of the EAS. After signing the Instrument of Accession, Ashton remarked that “This is an important step because it commits us to working together in tackling issues that we face in a peaceful way. It also confirms that we will work together to address some of the security and political concerns of the region."1
In saying so, Ashton echoed the quintessential process-oriented approach of the ASEAN towards dispute settlement, i.e. the ‘ASEAN way’ of managing regional discord through the modalities of norms and principles of non-interference, peaceful settlement of disputes, non-confrontational attitude to conflicts, emphasis on musyawarah (consensus) and muafakat (consultation). The TAC is the fountainhead of these modalities of building trust and confidence through dialogue. And without compromising on its fundamental stipulations, the ASEAN has accepted the countries on either side of the Pacific into its fold and widened its organizational base extensively. In this process, it has morphed into its present hydra-headed form accentuating ‘open regionalism’ and has also staged itself as a potential cradle for building a more comprehensive, cooperative, inclusive and multilateralist regional security architecture in East Asia. The ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus-8 (ADMM-Plus 8) is the latest addition to its network aimed at creating neutral, consultative and open engagement for the Asia-Pacific.
The fact that a regional organisation such as the 27 member EU should accede to TAC is a verdict which shows that the inherent values of ASEAN are not yet obsolete. It was also in consonance with these modalities enshrined in the “ASEAN way’ that the ASEAN had been issuing a joint communiqué at the end of its meetings, and over for the last 45 years the consistent practice of issuing a joint statement has assumed the importance of being a ‘customary communiqué’ in harmony with the expression of its motto of “one voice, one destiny, one community” articulating its shared strategic interests even if in a symbolic way.
This normative construction of the ASEAN found itself in a critical situation at the July Phnom Penh Summit, when the grouping failed to issue the expected joint communiqué. It failed because of the external and polarizing influences of China and the United States on the South China Sea dispute in particular. The US is ASEAN’s relatively new partner while China is the traditional regional bigwig with which Southeast Asia has deep historical and, essentially, hierarchical, political, cultural and continuing extended economic linkages. The simmering tensions between China and four ASEAN members—Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei—on account of their overlapping and competing claims of territorial sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea2 is the issue that is thrusting the US and China into a potential face-off with unintended irreversible damages for the region in the offing.
The first victim seems to be the ASEAN itself for this was the first time in 45 years that a joint communiqué was not issued because of disagreements over the text. Philippines Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario insisted that his country’s recent naval skirmishes with China in the Scarborough Shoal/Huayang be included in the text, while Vietnam wanted the mention of its dispute with China over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. The Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen refused to include a mention of these disputes in the text, since these are primarily bilateral in nature and could not be portrayed as a problem between China and ASEAN as a bloc. The exercise of preparing 18 drafts3 by the Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa could not muster the minimal consensus necessary. Cambodia was accused of buckling under Chinese pressure and not including any reference to the disputes in the communiqué, while Philippines was blamed for being excessively “blunt” and overly “un-ASEAN”4 emboldened as it was by its alliance with the US and recent US statements about providing the country support for enhancing the capability of its maritime presence. The US expression of support for the Philippines was aimed at strengthening “the Pacific nations to defend and secure themselves”; in other words, a cog in the strategy of “rebalancing” towards Asia, which was re-emphasised by US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in his June 2012 speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
The ASEAN’s failure in not issuing the communiqué has invited a plethora of alarming projections of being a “significant watershed in ASEAN’s history”, its “unprecedented failure”, a “high-profile failure”, and ASEAN’s silence exaggerated as the voice of its death knell. Far from being the cause of its imminent demise or becoming irrelevant, and even though the incident is bound to go down in the annals of ASEAN as the year of omission, this lapse only accentuates the importance of keeping and making ASEAN strong, albeit bringing forth the need to hone its diplomatic skills to stay afloat in the rough waters of any intra-ASEAN divergence and retain its historic neutrality by circumventing dominance either by the US or China. In fact, the diplomatic impasse within the ASEAN will act like a prism to reflect the dangers to all the stakeholders alike that there are limited advantages in creating a divided and polarized ASEAN.
To contain the damage, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa at the behest of the Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono conducted an intensive shuttle diplomacy to restore ASEAN unity. He subsequently accomplished a common ground on the release of the statement of ‘six-point principles’ on July 20, 2012. These include the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in South China Sea (DOC) 2002, the support for the guidelines of the DOC in 2011, the need for the early conclusion of a regional code of conduct on the South China Sea, the full respect for the universally recognized principles of international law including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the continued exercise of self-restraint and non-use of force by all parties, and the peaceful resolution of conflicts in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law including the 1982 UNCLOS.5
If China has been unreasonably belligerent and uncompromising, then the US has not been less bellicose either. The US has taken recourse to a “relentless charm offensive” that could “polarise the region if countries succumb to superpower’s wooing”. On the other hand, China has abandoned the charm offensive and acts more like a persistent exasperating exhibitionist of its muscle power which forces the affected ASEAN nations to make a difficult choice. It is well-understood that Hillary Clinton had decided much in advance that “Southeast Asia, specifically ASEAN, will serve as the fulcrum for a long-term Asia strategy”6 and she has brought the US closer to Asia. An editorial in a major newspaper of Thailand has highlighted that “If US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants to leave a positive legacy in our region, she must make sure that her constant presence, smile and speeches do not further divide ASEAN and cause discord with other major powers and among countries” as this “closeness has been too close for comfort because some countries have lost their strategic balance.”7 In its desirous and plausible transition to becoming a rule based multilateral security forum, ASEAN is bound to encounter multifarious challenges but the mettle of its resilience is harder than an eggshell.8 Nevertheless, in ASEAN’s on-going efforts toward building the ASEAN Community by 2015, it has no better option than to employ its own self-engineered glue in building a binding community in its region. The direct and the indirect contrasting machinations of both the US and China left their mark on this ASEAN Summit but the onus of not escalating tensions in the region equally rests with both of them.
Preeti Nalwa is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. She is currently a Japan Foundation Doctoral Fellow and also a Non-Resident Kelly Fellow at the Pacific Forum, CSIS.