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South China Sea issue 'a test for Asean'

Publication Date : 03-08-2012


The Asean as a body must show it can forge consensus on tough issues, say Singapore leaders


The South China Sea issue will remain a test case of Asean's ability to forge consensus on difficult problems and act in the region's broader interests, senior Singapore officials said yesterday.

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong yesterday said it was vital for Asean to demonstrate its capability to achieve consensus on even the most sensitive of issues.

This is especially so as Asean journeys towards building a regional economic community, during which it will encounter many politically sensitive and difficult decisions, he said in a speech at the fifth Asean and Asia Forum organised by theSingapore Institute of International Affairs yesterday.

Speaking at a separate event hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said balancing national interests and those of the region "is a critical factor of Asean's durability... (and the) foundation of our organisation".

"Asean as a whole has to be bigger than any single issue," he told an audience of 330 guests from the diplomatic community, statutory boards and schools at an Asean Day reception to mark the 45th anniversary of the grouping's founding.

Both men pointed to the failure of the 45th Asean Ministerial Meeting (AMM) last month to achieve common ground on a joint communique because of disagreements over the South China Sea, saying it dealt a severe blow to the credibility of the grouping.

Said Goh: "Although Indonesia's success in forging a common position after the AMM went some way to salvage the situation, our dialogue partners and investors must surely be watching and recalculating their interests and positions."

He added: "It is therefore imperative that we address their concerns and demonstrate that we are capable of reaching consensus on even the most sensitive of issues."

At the Asean summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia as chair had refused to include in a joint communique a recent stand-off between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal, as well as exclusive economic zones and continental shelves in the disputed areas of the South China Sea. This was despite a majority of Asean members agreeing to their inclusion.

As a result, the grouping failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in its 45-year history. It took an Indonesia-led effort for a joint statement on the South China Sea disputes to be issued days after the event.

Shanmugam, who was at the Phnom Penh summit, yesterday said in his speech: "After what transpired at the 45th AMM, Asean will be judged by the world on our ability to manage a consensus on the South China Sea."

He said consultations are taking place now on how to handle the draft of the joint communique, which contains many areas of agreement on how to move towards an Asean community by 2015.

Rodolfo Severino, a former Asean secretary-general and head of the Asean Studies Centre at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, told The Straits Times last night that the communique is very important because it serves as a public record of the agreements reached during the meetings.

Without it, it would be difficult even for Asean leaders present during those meetings to keep track of what was discussed, he said.


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