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Asean needs to retain its collective voice
Publication Date : 18-07-2012
Asean may need to review its internal working procedure before differences over relations with superpowers damage its unity and eventually regional stability.
Since its founding more than four decades ago, Asean has relied on the principle of consensus for all its decisions. However, the recent annual meeting held in Phnom Penh last week proved that this consensus method no longer works, as some individual members are more focused on national interests.
There seems to be a deep divide in the grouping over conflicts in the South China Sea, as claimants involved in disputed areas, notably the Philippines and Vietnam, want the region to take a united stand against China.
Manila wanted the group to express grave concern over the recent stand-off between the Philippines and China at Scarborough Shoal in a joint statement Asean ministers were meant to issue after the meeting.
Vietnam also wanted the statement to include a mandate that all concerned parties respect its rights in the Exclusive Economic Zone now that it has issued a law claiming rights over an area in the South China Sea.
Other members of the group also say it is important for them to have a collective voice in regard to the conflict, or at least prove that Asean is still relevant enough to speak on current issues in the region. In fact, many members expect the group as a whole to solve such problems from the very core.
However, Cambodia, which is the current Asean chair and also has strong ties with Beijing, did not want to mention any particular incident or situation in the joint communique last week. Hence, every attempt to issue a statement failed during many meetings by ministers last week.
Initially, Cambodia urged all concerned parties to draft a statement on the issue, but later rejected it because the area was referred to as Scarborough Shoal. (China refers to it as Huangyan Island).
Then Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa held a meeting on the last day of the gathering to try and find suitable terms, but failed in his attempt. This was because many members did not attend, as they did not believe there would be any compromise on the issue.
Obviously, no consensus can be reached without a compromise, and compromise is difficult if some countries are focused only on their own interest.
Many Southeast Asian countries have had conflicts with China over the South China Sea for a long time, as they all want a share of the abundant petroleum resources in the area that Beijing is claiming sovereignty over.
There have been many military confrontations in the area, but Phnom Penh does not want Asean to get involved in the matter and wants concerned parties to resolve the conflict on a bilateral basis instead. However, Hanoi and Manila have both learned that the collective voice of Asean would be more powerful than a mere bilateral deal.
In fact, Asean is hoping to set up a regional code of conduct with China that can be used as a binding legal instrument to prevent conflicts in the South China Sea.
However the group needs to be unified for this, and they cannot achieve that if they do not speak with the same voice. Clearly it's difficult for Asean to solve this issue using its consensus principle, so perhaps it is time to find another method for making decisions.