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Consensus rule mooted on South China Sea feud: analyst

Publication Date : 18-01-2013


It may be time for Asean to reconsider the meaning of its consensus principle in order for the Chair Brunei to lead the 10-nation bloc effectively, an Asean analyst said on Wednesday.

Asean's consensus-based decision-making has long been a source of derision among its critics, who say it has hindered the effectiveness of the grouping and damaged its credibility.

"It is a hinderance - in a situation if somebody wants to create mischief by not going along with what seems like a sensible, reasonable idea of how to move (an issue) forward," said Munir Majid, a visiting senior fellow at London School for Economics IDEAS (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy).

"Because if they don't come along with it then we're held back and the whole region suffers. A decision has got to be taken."

In an interview at Universiti Brunei Darussalam, Munir, a former chairman of Malaysia Airlines, described how the maritime feud in the South China Sea has caused tension among Southeast Asian leaders who differ on how to handle the issue.

China claims sovereignty over nearly all of the resource-rich sea, but Asean members like Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia also have overlapping claims in the area.

Cambodia's 2012 Asean chairmanship was marked by sharp regional discord over the affair. As a close ally of China, it was accused of resisting efforts by the Philippines and Vietnam to take a more aggressive position against the Chinese.

The rancour led to unprecedented infighting at an Asean foreign ministers' meeting in Phnom Penh last July, which ended for the first time in the bloc's 45-year history without a joint communique.

"So it may come to a hard decision (for Brunei) where you've done all the groundwork and made all the effort."

"But I think these guys can still be won over through quiet diplomacy. There is some childish interaction within Asean leaders which they should rise above."

In this situation, consensus does not mean that everyone has to accept a decision, said Munir, consensus should be understood as having everyone's ideas heard equally and stated in the final document in an objective manner.

Brunei lays claims to an area which it considers its "exclusive economic zone" (200 nautical miles from shore), as prescribed by international law, but China claims almost 95 per cent of this area as its sovereign territory.

"People have asked me, will Brunei be impartial? Because it is also involved in the (South China Sea) dispute."

"In fact, the role of the chair is to make sure every view is expressed and heard, including the chair's view.

"But as a chair, if you only allow some views to be heard and others not - then you're not being impartial," he said.

"Brunei's got a tradition of being quite impartial in its foreign relations."


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