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Regrouping after the Phnom Penh fiasco

Publication Date : 23-07-2012


What emerged out of Asean's unprecedented and regrettable failure to issue a final communique at its foreign ministers' meeting over a week ago was a sober and useful reminder: Consensus is harder to reach the longer an issue has been ignored. Rival South China Sea claims had brewed into a perfect storm threatening intra-Asean ties and pitting some members against an increasingly assertive China.

Asean nations have had decades to thrash out their differences, but the so-called Asean Way seems to have been more hindrance than help, bringing harmony at the price of keeping sensitive matters largely off the agenda. Such diplomatic form has, admittedly, facilitated enough genuine agreement on economic and other functional areas of cooperation to keep Asean relevant. But the fiasco in Phnom Penh has truly exposed its limits. The debate over the joint statement reportedly deteriorated into an unseemly quarrel in strong, un-Asean language.

Commendably, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono re-started building consensus with alacrity. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa was dispatched to Asean capitals to get members to try again to reach an adequate level of understanding, if not a common position. These tireless efforts have led to the recent statement on 'Asean's Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea'.

This success in finding common ground will go some way towards rebuilding Asean credibility. The speedy turnaround of events has helped dispel earlier criticisms and dire predictions about the grouping's future. Hopefully, the earlier setback can now be reduced to just a blip in otherwise warm relations. After all, much remains to be done on the Asean front, and the need for member states to work together on economic, social and political issues, remains pressing.

However, as always, diplomacy needs to be informed by history and political strategy. Inevitably, big powers will always behave like big powers, making pawns of weaker states to further their interests. Peaceful though its rise might be, China is simply reverting to historical type as it attempts to project its power to the south. The United States, pivoting back to the region, whether in reaction or not to China's ascendancy, also has its global interests. Other parties will increasingly have to navigate these tricky waters, and should be wary of taking steps which needlessly up the ante. Those who profess neutrality will have to do so against this increasingly complex backdrop. Above all, Asean members should guard against any escalation of the dispute into an open contest between China and the US, in which they might be pressed to take sides. Given the many challenges Asean members still have to address together, unity is still their best option.


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