Wednesday 18 July 2012

Key players holding Asean hostage!

After the Asean foreign minister failed to issue the joint communiqué last week, a frequently asked question has been: which countries are holding Asean hostage?

There are multiple choices, please pick one or more: a) The Asean claimants; b) The Asean non-claimants; c) The concurrent Asean Chair; d) The US; e) China; and f) all of the above. Here are explanations for each answer.

For the answer a), there are many reasons. Asean claimants are divided and lacked unity - the grouping's weakest point. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei seldom hold meetings among themselves to discuss about their common strategies. Back in 1995 they used to back and watch out for each others. As the national stakes are getting higher, they are shrieking in their cooperation. However, when they deem fit, they would use Asean as a front to counter external pressure. This time around in Phnom Penh they went on their own different way protecting their turfs.

For the first time in the Asean's 45-year history, the joint communiqué was not release because there were too many details on the disputes in South China Sea. Deep down, the foreign ministers from claimant members all pushed for their own bottom lines. They were more resilient previously. The Philippines wanted their dispute in the Scarborough Shoal to be included in the final communiqué while Vietnam did not budge pushing for its own version of the recent China's alleged violations of its economic exclusive zone. Malaysia, one of the most critical voices of Asean claimants in the past regarding the South China Sea, has been missing in action this time. However, it insisted to add "another shoals" followed the Philippines' request. Brunei was quiet and waiting for its turn next year as the Asean chair.

Such divergent views provided an ideal opportunity for the Asean chair, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, to go for a kill and cut short the whole debate. He proposed to the claimants that all of the incidents raised by them should be referred collectively as "recent developments in the South China Sea." Take it or leave it. Bang, bang, nothing came out. It was very interesting why he was not in the mood to find a common ground - the virtue normally displayed by all previous Asean chairs. At the last minute, Philippine Foreign Minister Roberto de Rosario even softened his wordings with an offer of just mentioning "the affected shoal." Now the Asean leaders must be seriously pondering what would happen when the region's longest reigning leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen, chairs the November summit.

It was clear for those who opted for the answer b) that the non-claimant countries are equally problematic apart from the Asean chair. There are two kinds of non-claimants Asean countries - those who are concerned parties and those who are not. The concerned parties are Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand, and the rest are not. The trio wants to see progress but now they are now caught in a dilemma as their views and positions could impact on the future of Asean and the whole gamut of Asean-China relations. Singapore stressed from time to time that as concerned parties in the disputes both within the Asean and international context it must be engaged to ensure freedom and safety of the sea-lane of communications. So is Indonesia, which also wants Asean to show solidarity overe the dispute. Thailand's position is a bit tricky. It depends who is the "real" foreign minister - still very confusing. These core members backed the issuance of a separate statement on South China Sea at the ministerial meeting. But the idea was later squashed as the Asean chair said that both China and the Philippine held bilateral talks and the tension over the Scarborough Shoal or Huanyan calmed down. So, there was no need for such a statement. Thailand, which is a coordinating country for Asean-China relations for 2012-2015, was lobbied hard by both China and the US for support on their positions. There was even a suggestion that if there was such a statement on South China Sea, both China and the Philippines should be mentioned and deplored for heightening the tension in the South China Sea.

Explanation for the choice c) must be that the Asean chair this year at the Asean annual meeting is a veteran politician, Foreign minister Hor Namhong. He knows exactly when to pull the trigger. This time he managed to block the joint communiqué - it will be his legacy. His action upset several foreign ministers attending the meeting. The reporters widely quoted Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa's comment saying that he was "disappointed" with the outcome and some Asean members acted "irresponsibly." Of course, he did not mention Cambodia by name. It remains to be seen how this will affect the role of Indonesia as observers in the Thai-Cambodian dispute over the Preah Vihear/Khao Praviharn Temple. There has been very little progress on this initiative when Indonesia served as chair last year.

In the next two years, Brunei Darussalam and Myanmar will take up the Asean chair after Cambodia in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Truth be told, both countries supported Cambodia on the South China Sea issue. Although Brunei is one of the Asean claimants, the oil-rich country has never raised any voice or stated its position out right in this squabbling. But Brunei and Myanmar have distinctive positions that the overlapping claims should be settled among the claimants without useful forces and through dialogues. Such views augur well with China's long standing argument.

For the answer d), reasons are simple. Everybody knows the US has shown more support for Asean even though it is cutting its defense budget in the future. With troops dwindling down in Afghanistan, the US is shifting the attention to the Asia-Pacific, which could be the next battleground. The Pentagon plans to increase the troop level from the current 50 per cent to 60 per cent in the next 10 years. Where will be the extra ten per cent of American troops making their first home base or rather rotational base? With the US becoming more enthusiastic in association with the ongoing Asean efforts on security matters, some Asean members are feeling gung-ho while others are feeling uneasy as they know they could become prawns in the big power games. After all, Southeast Asia will remain in China's backyard.

Those picked e) for an answer must be non-Chinese. Throughout the Asean ministerial meeting, the Chinese media in China all blamed the Philippines for holding Asean hostage and wondered aloud why Asean allowed such a behavior. Interestingly, only few Chinese commentators mentioned Vietnam though. The South China Sea row comes at the time when China is promoting new diplomatic approach of peaceful rise and development. It will be further consolidated as a plan for regional harmony with the new leadership line up later this year. Therefore Beijing does not understand why Asean would allow the Philippines and Vietnam to turn things upside down in Asean-China relations. Beijing has already placed relations with developing countries in Southeast Asia as the number one foreign policy priority followed the South China Sea tension. China's ties with major powers especially the US, Russia and Europe are predictable and stable. However, now any tension between China and Asean could harm their major powers' relations.

Finally, the explanation for the last answer f) is rather self-fullfilling. All of the above mentioned players have effectively held Asean hostage one way or another as well. Many decisions were now stuck because there was no joint communiqué to officially state their deliberations. All player have used Asean as a play toy for their own benefits all the way, utilizing the rhetoric and tactics that Asean leaders are familiar too. The Asean chair knows full well his pejorative power to shape the agenda and content. He exercised it with prudence. Likewise, Asean claimants and non-claimants understand deep in their heart they would never be able to unite again with on common position on South China Sea as in March 1995. That was why the Philippines has taken all necessary steps to boost its own position, including increased defence cooperation with the US, much to the chagrins of other Asean members. The US and China will compete, confront and cooperation within the Asean frameworks. In the past, nobody was worried about such engagements because Asean spoke with one voice. From now on, all hell can break loose. Good luck Asean.

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