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Whither the Asean community?

Publication Date : 08-08-2012

 

The discord over how to deal with China in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea overshadows the 45th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which falls today.

Hanging in the balance is not only whether the 10 member countries can realise their plan to turn the region into one single community in 2015, but also whether there is really a future for Asean at all.

Indonesia has done its share in trying to forge Asean unity in the wake of the failure of the foreign ministers to come to a common position on the South China Sea at their annual meeting in Phnom Penh last month.

As commendable as the efforts of Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa were in salvaging the meeting following his 36-hour whirlwind diplomacy to hammer out a joint final statement, there is no denying that Asean members are deeply divided on this issue. No sooner had the statement been issued than the Philippines and Cambodia were attacking one another once again.

Asean failed in the most serious test so far on its way to becoming a real community. Some member countries are more interested in turning to outside powers, or even in bringing in outsiders, to address the South China Sea disputes.

They obviously have little or no trust in Asean capacity or Asean ability to speak with one voice on this issue. We already had a glimpse of this mistrust among Asean members in 2011 when Thailand and Cambodia turned to outside forces to mediate their border dispute.

Asean's limitations come from its outdated modes, firstly in its decision-making process through consensus and secondly its policy of non-interference in the affairs of other members.

We have seen how the Myanmar junta slowed down the entire Asean integration process by taking a long time before allowing a modicum of freedom for its people. Asean's silence in the face of recent violent ethnic conflicts in Myanmar between the Rohingyas and Rakhines also shows the group's virtual impotence.

Unless these two obstacles are resolved, we are likely to see a dysfunctional community from its birth in 2015.

The latest discord over the South China Sea contravenes the spirit which led the 10 Asean leaders to sign the Second Asean Concord in Bali in 2003, a milestone agreement to create a single community, originally by 2020 but later moved forward to 2015.

Recent events, but particularly the division over the South China Sea issue, prove that Asean may be being over-ambitious in its community target.

The Asean community project of raising the countries and peoples in this part of the world to be on a par with the rest of the world in the competitive global environment is a worthy and noble cause.

The rapid economic rise of China and India since the 1990s has given the Asean community idea a greater sense of urgency. Southeast Asian leaders rightly decided in 2003 that the way forward for the region was to unite, to speak with one voice in regional and global affairs and to integrate and become a single community.

But is the whole really greater than the sum of its parts? Unfortunately not when Asean is as divided as it is today.

Forging unity has its price, but Indonesia should not bear most or all of the costs, certainly not when the other members are failing to contribute their fair share. Not everyone has lived up to their commitments to Asean.

Indonesia meanwhile has continued to put its faith in the group by consistently making Asean the cornerstone of its foreign policy. Being the largest member in the group carries certain responsibilities.

Indonesia, dating from the Soeharto years until now, has provided the necessary leadership as well as many of the diplomatic initiatives, not to mention resources, to turn Asean into one of the world’s most successful regional organisations. But there are limits to what Indonesia can do in Asean, and the recent behaviour of some Asean countries tells us that we may be approaching that limit.

When that happens, Indonesia should rethink its foreign policy paradigm.

In marking the Asean anniversary today, we can all look back with satisfaction at how the group has served well in fostering peace and development, and with it prosperity for the peoples in the region. But looking ahead, we have to ask ourselves whether there is still any sense in forging an Asean community by 2015 if everyone now seems bent on going their separate ways.

 

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