On Wednesday, Asean will be 45 years old. Even at this juncture, the earlier words of warning from a founding father still ring loud.
"If Asean does not hang together, they shall be hung separately," said S. Rajaratnam, then Singaporean foreign minister, on the reason why the grouping must stick together in the early hours after the establishment of Asean in 1967.
At this juncture, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong is still communicating with his Asean colleagues to work out an alternative document that would contain the decisions of the failed joint communiqué, which was not issued at their last meeting in Cambodia.
Somehow, mutual trust has been lost among them, which urgently needs to be restored. Up until the weekend, |they had only agreed on a list of key action-oriented outcomes. The problem is, the list, which needs a consensus, still does not contain the controversial South China Sea dispute.
Within diplomatic circuits in Asean, in the past weeks stories of how Hor Nam Hong snubbed the joint efforts by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa and Singaporean Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam at the last minute to save the draft were widespread.
Some Asean countries are very concerned that the South China Sea is overshadowing all other issues in Asean. If this disagreement continues it could spoil the upcoming series of summits scheduled in the third week of November as well as other future plans.
Following Indonesian President Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's personal appeal to Prime Minister Hun Sen, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak recently wrote to him the other day with a strong message that Asean must not let the South China Sea dispute affect the building of the Asean Community.
Shamefully absent from all these endeavors is Thailand, the current coordinating country of Asean-China relations. However, Hun Sen responded unwittingly by referring to a letter dated July 26 dispatched by Hor Nam Hong to his colleagues. The letter was about the chair's effort to come up with an internal document that detailed the decisions made in the July meeting, which failed to mention the dispute.
If Asean is unable to come up with a new document in the next 48 hours, it could represent the darkest chapter of its history. Most importantly, it will reflect badly on the chair as Cambodia earlier tried to highlight the grouping's success in the past 45 years under its chair. The Phnom Penh Declaration was issued to that effect, which has now proved to be hollow.
There have been some informal discussions among officials and academics about the need to come up with the rules of procedure to guide a rotating chair in the future. At the moment, there are no clear rules concerning the Asean chair and its relations with other Asean organs and how the Asean Secretary General and its staff can be of assistance. The Asean foreign ministers took things for granted that they would be able to form a consensus on any issue as in the past four decades. But the Phnom Penh incident changed all that.
More importantly, there must be a review of the position of Secretary General and the Secretariat for the benefit of coordination and cross-sectoral cooperation. Indeed, the disagreements among the Asean members over the maritime dispute have rendered urgency to the various recommendations submitted last year by Secretary General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan. In his special report concerning challenges facing Asean and its secretariat to Indonesia, which chaired Asean last year, he urged the Asean leaders to spell out clearly various roles and duties of each Asean organ and how they relate to each other.
After the Asean Charter came into effect in 2008, new organs were created to help the member countries adhere to numerous Asean agreements and commitments. These were the Asean Coordinating Council, Asean Political-Security Council, Asean Economic Community Council, Asean Socio-Cultural Council, the Committee of Permanent Representatives, et al. At the same time, the position of Secretary General of Asean has been conferred as the Chief Administrative Officer of Asean with a ministerial rank. Surin was the first Asean head with a ministerial rank before serving in the secretariat. That helps explain why Surin's successor, Le Luong Minh from Vietnam, is a vice foreign minister.
Soon the Asean leaders will have to decide whether the Asean Charter need to be reviewed in order to improve the efficiency of decision making within the organization. After the charter came into force, member countries adopted a list of supplementary agreements, which continues until today. As long as these negotiations are not complete, the flow of operations at various levels within Asean will not be smooth. The lack of clarity on the roles and relationships among the various organs within Asean has caused serious structural problems in running day-to-day activities.
Here are some important questions that the Asean leaders must address. Is the Secretary General of Asean the only Asean representative with ministerial rank? Given his/her wider access |to summits and ministerial meetings including G20 and other global forums, is the Secretary General distinctive from other foreign ministers or sectorial ministers in Asean? If so, what sort of value do the Asean governments attach to the unique perspective of Asean articulated by the Secretary General?
It is an open secret that Dr. Surin has tried consistently to raise these pertinent issues in the past two years to pave the way for a more efficient secretariat in the future. Indonesia and Thailand have been supportive of his endeavours. Deep down, other more conservative members want continued ambiguities to reign because whenever there are controversies, the Asean leaders or ministers will have the final say. Even though Asean is more integrated than before, there is no plan to allow the Asean chief to speak on their behalf. As such, new and existing programs and activities could come to a halt if their decisions are not put into official records, such as the case in Phnom Penh.
As a rule-based organiation, Asean needs to review the charter and undertake further bold reform efforts. Brunei, the Asean chair next year, must seize the initiative now. Surin's recommendations should also be given full support as he knows firsthand about the organization’s potentials and pitfalls from his five-year experience.
Without these reforms, Asean will be plagued with growing national interests depleting the common Asean interests that will further weaken Asean as a whole.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a specialist in Asean and Southeast Asian affairs.