Monday, July 30, 2012

South China Sea: Asean’s exit strategies

Monday, 30 July 2012 12:52 Kavi Chongkittavorn

(Commentary) - Asean must find a way to put the genie back in the bottle. Otherwise, the tension in the rich South China Sea maritime region will increase further, leading to confrontation – a lose-lose situation the region cannot afford.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

For the past three weeks, Asean's soft underbelly has been badly exposed. To manage the crisis, all concerned parties must demonstrate the strongest political will.

Some necessary steps:

First, the Asean chair must continue its effort to issue the abortive joint communique as soon as possible, because many important decisions are being held up. For instance, the name of next Asean secretary-general, Le Luong Minh, must be submitted for the Asean leaders' formal approval in mid-November.

It if it fails to do so, Asean could face a new leadership crisis. The problematic paragraph on the South China Sea obviously needs to be refined further in language that is acceptable to all Asean members. In this case, the Asean chair, Vietnam and the Philippines, must meet face to face and refresh their wordings to ensure a consensus text. The statement on six principles on the South China Sea worked out by Indonesia is useful as well. It could be collaborated or added as an appendix to the main document.

The Asean foreign ministers must return to their notes again so that the important deliberations can be reflected in black and white. Asean's interest must come first. This is not the first time that Asean has become stuck in a word game.

In the past, it has successfully overcome problems of wording regarding conflicts between the Palestinians and Israel in the Middle East; India and Pakistan over the Kashmir problem; North Korea and South Korea; and finally last year's conflict between Thailand and Cambodia over an ancient Hindu Temple. Whatever Asean decides on the final statement, major powers will accept it and make necessary adjustments in their positions accordingly.

Second, non-claimant Asean members must be more pro-active. At this moment, Indonesia stands out as the only member capable of mediating intra-Asean quarrels, thanks to Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa's initiative and shuttle diplomacy. Under the Suharto government, it would have been difficult for Indonesia to perform such a task. His predecessors, such as Prof. Mochtar Kusumaadja, and later on, Ali Alatas and Hassan Wirayuda – notwithstanding their seniority and diplomatic skills – would be unable to take advantage of conditions as competitive and stressful as exist today.

As the grouping's most populous member, inevitably, Indonesia's increased Asean profile and intellectual leadership will influence the organization's politics.

Thailand and Singapore used to be in similar positions, taking active roles. However, they are coping with pressing domestic issues. Thailand, as the coordinating country for Asean-China relations, needs to show to its Asean colleagues that Bangkok can use diplomacy to forge Asean consensus, especially at this critical juncture.

At the moment, the function of Thai foreign policy has been shaped and twisted to protect Thaksin Shinawatra's interests, rather than those of the country's as a whole.

Singapore has the brains, but not the size or the political asset that Indonesia has accumulated since 1998.

Third, all claimants need to agree on an ideal model for cooperation, knowing full well that the overlapping claims of sovereignty over disputed islands will not be resolved in the foreseeable future. It is imperative that the Asean claimants agree to follow the successful model of Thailand and Malaysia's joint development of disputed areas in the Gulf of Thailand since 1979. The 50-50 split of benefits has already worked in this context.

In 2008, based on paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's mantra of advocating joint development first and putting aside the sovereignty issue, China and the Philippines agreed to allow their state-owned oil companies to conduct a joint seismic survey of their disputed territorial waters.

Vietnam decided to join the bilateral agreement a few months later with support from the Philippines and China. However, the tripartite arrangement did not produce a result that could provide a template. If the earlier Philippines-China collaboration had proceeded as planned, the overall landscape of the present conflict would have been more conducive to a peaceful settlement.

Now, without a proper model to emulate, nearly all the conflicting parties are asserting their claims, establishing local governments to exercise their sovereignty rights, pushing their longstanding historical claims with ancient documents such as maps and through selective applications of the UN Law of the Sea.

To compound the issue, in Vietnam the disputed area is called the East Sea and in the Philippines, the Western Philippine Sea. Deep down, they realize that eventually they must soften their positions to end the current stalemate. But it must be done in a graceful way that does not force anyone to lose too much face. In Phnom Penh, sad to say though, the chair and key claimants have placed themselves in a corner by virtue of their arguments and nationalistic stands.

Fourth, Asean should continue to discuss the South China Sea, as members have done in the past among themselves and with China, under the Asean-plus-one formula. Other Asean-led forums such as the Asean Regional Forum, East Asia Summit and Asean Defense Ministerial Meeting Plus are complementary to the ministerial one. If Asean decides to duck the issue, fearing China's wrath, it would dent the grouping's credibility further. At the upcoming East Asia Summit, leaders can raise any issue, with or without the consent of Asean.

China and Asean need to look back at how they broke through the impasse in April 1995 when their relations were at an all time low over the dispute at Mischief Reef.

Since all claimants and dialogue partners have expressed strong support for the ongoing process of competing regional codes of conduct (COCs) on the South China Sea, they should allow the Asean-China senior officials to work on the COC without hindrance. Beijing's early willingness to negotiate the COC with Asean must be restored. To show goodwill, China also must make clear the guidelines for Asean to use the US$ 500-million maritime cooperation fund set up last year, especially regarding joint development and research projects.

Finally, if it wants to play in the major leagues, Asean must be prepared. One of the strategies is to increase the capacity of the Asean Secretariat. At the moment, it is relatively under-funded and weak, especially its political/security and social/cultural pillars. Asean performs well only on economic cooperation and integration.

Truth be told, while its leaders expressed support for the current effort by Asean Secretary-General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan to strengthen the Asean Secretariat and other organs, they have never agreed exactly on how a stronger secretariat would be able to carry out its mandates. Senior officials and the Jakarta-based envoys from Asean speak and act on behalf of their countries. Surin and his staff do not. His tenure ends in December and Le Luong Minh will take over from January 2013.

Without any clear direction, Asean's much vaulted centrality and neutrality could be challenged and subsequently eroded, as – beyond diplomatic pleasantries – the dialogue partners are demanding "equal partnership" in all forums. The last-minute decision of France, the US and the UK to postpone signing the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty was indicative of the growing interconnectedness between Asean and major powers and the latter's ability to influence Asean process.

Only China and Russia stand ready to sign. Article 11, item 9 of the Asean Charter succinctly states that each Asean member "undertakes to respect the exclusive Asean character of the responsibilities of the secretary-general and the staff, and not to seek to influence them in the discharge of the responsibilities."

Surin's predecessor, Ong Keng Yong, introduced this clause based on his deep understanding of Asean's psyche and backbone. So far, none of the Asean leaders who signed the charter has done that.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a widely respected political analyst with broad experience in Southeast Asia’s cultural and political affairs.

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