(Commentary) – After the Asean foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communique 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 to disputed territories in the South China Sea; b) the Asean non-claimants; c) Cambodia, the current Asean chair; d) the US; e) China; or f) all of the above.
There are many reasons to choose f).
In support of answer a), Asean claimants are divided and lack unity – the groups’ weakest point. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei seldom hold meetings among themselves to discuss their common strategies. Back in 1995 they used to back and watch out for each other. As the national stakes are getting higher, their cooperation is shrinking, although, when they see fit, they use Asean as a front to counter external pressures. In Phnom Penh, they went their own ways to protect their turf.
For the first time in Asean's 45-year history, a joint communiqué was not released because it would have contained too many details on disputes in the South China Sea.
The foreign ministers from claimant members all pushed for their own bottom lines. They were more resilient previously. The Philippines wanted their dispute over the Scarborough Shoal to be included in the final communiqué, while Vietnam did not budge from pushing for its own version of China's alleged recent violations of its economic exclusion zone.
Malaysia, one of the most critical voices among the Asean claimants in the past regarding the South China Sea, has been missing in action this time. However, it insisted on adding "other shoals" to the statement at 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 the kill and cut the whole debate short. He proposed to the claimants that all of the incidents raised by them should be referred to collectively as "recent developments in the South China Sea." Take it or leave it. Bang, bang, nothing came out. It was very interesting that he was not in the mood to find common ground – the virtue displayed by all previous Asean chairs. At the last minute, Philippine Foreign Secretary Roberto del Rosario even softened his wording with an offer of just mentioning "the affected shoal." Now the Asean leaders must be seriously pondering what will happen when the region's longest-serving leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen, chairs the November summit.
It is clear to those who opted for answer b) that the non-claimant countries are equally problematic, apart from the Asean chair. There are two kinds of non-claimant 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 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 has stressed from time to time that concerned parties in the disputes both within Asean and the international context must be engaged to ensure freedom and safety of the sea-lanes. So is Indonesia, which also wants Asean to show solidarity over the dispute.
Thailand's position is a bit tricky. It depends who the "real" foreign minister is, which is still very confusing. These core members backed the issuance of a separate statement on the South China Sea at the ministerial meeting. But the idea was later quashed as the Asean chair said that China and the Philippines held bilateral talks and the tension over the Scarborough Shoal, or Huanyan Island as the Chinese call it, calmed down. So, there was no need for such a statement. Thailand, the 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 the South China Sea, both China and the Philippines should be mentioned and deplored for heightening the tension in the area.
Reasons to choose c) must be that the Asean chair this year at the Asean annual meeting is a veteran politician, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong. He knows exactly when to pull the trigger. This time he managed to block the joint communique – 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 that he was "disappointed" with the outcome and that 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 Phra Viharn Temple. There has been very little progress on this initiative since Indonesia served as chair last year.
In the next two years, Brunei and Myanmar will follow Cambodia as Asean chair 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 outright in this squabbling. But Brunei and Myanmar have taken the position that the overlapping claims should be settled among the claimants without use of force and through dialogue. Such views mesh well with China's longstanding argument.
For the answer d), the reasons are simple. Everybody knows the US has shown more support for Asean even though it is cutting its defence budget in the future. With troops soon to be drawn down in Afghanistan, the US is shifting attention to the Asia-Pacific, which could be the next battleground. The Pentagon plans to increase the proportion of troops based in the region from the current 50 per cent to 60 per cent in the next 10 years. Where will the extra 10 per cent of troops make their first home base, or rather rotational base? With the US becoming more enthusiastic in associating with ongoing Asean efforts on security matters, some Asean members are feeling gung-ho while others are uneasy, as they know they could become pawns in the big power game. After all, Southeast Asia will remain in China's backyard.
Those who picked e) for an answer must be non-Chinese. Throughout the Asean ministerial meeting, the Chinese media accused the Philippines of holding Asean hostage and wondered aloud why Asean allowed such behaviour. Interestingly, only a few Chinese commentators mentioned Vietnam. The South China Sea row comes at a time when China is promoting a new diplomatic approach of peaceful rise and development. It will be further consolidated as a plan for regional harmony with the new leadership later this year. Therefore, Beijing does not understand why Asean would allow the Philippines and Vietnam to upend Asean-China relations. Beijing has already placed relations with developing countries in Southeast Asia as a major foreign policy priority. China's ties with major powers, especially the US, Russia and Europe are predictable and stable. However, tension between China and Asean now threatens to harm Beijing's relations with major powers.
Finally, the explanation for the last answer f) is rather self-evident. All of the above-mentioned players have effectively held Asean hostage in one way or another. Implementation of many decisions is now stuck because there was no joint communique to officially state their deliberations. All players have used Asean as a plaything for their own benefit, utilizing the rhetoric and tactics that Asean leaders are familiar with. 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 hearts that they would never be able to unite again on a common position on the 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 chagrin of other Asean members. The US and China will compete, confront and cooperate within the Asean framework. In the past, nobody was worried about such engagements because Asean spoke with one voice. From now on, all hell could break loose. Good luck, Asean.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a well-known commentator on Asean and Southeast Asia politics.