(Commentary) - A series of meetings in Phnom Penh this week among senior officials from Asean and East Asia will determine if member states can establish a common ground.
At stake is the fate of Asean unity and the dialogue partners' sphere of influence. Currently, it is not just vexing Asean-China relations that are in question, as ties with the US, Japan and others have also been affected by the so-called "Phnom Penh incident" of mid-July when Cambodia dropped a joint statement that may have included mention of the Philippines's and Vietnam's claims in the South China Sea.
With Asean's most valuable asset – its declared unity – wavering, some of its friends and foes are either reviewing or juggling their positions.
For the first time, Japan has expressed displeasure over the perceived biased role played by the chair during the Asean Regional Forum and foreign ministerial meeting relating to the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea and issues over the South China Sea.
Over the weekend, Washington also requested a special meeting between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Asean counterparts in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly later this month. It was a rather unusual diplomatic overture at this juncture. If the
chair's faux pas is not overcome and Asean's division is not healed in the next few weeks, its credibility will be dented further, making it even harder to repair.
Events concerning the situation in the South China Sea – the Scarborough shoals, the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf – still remain three taboo subjects. As of now, the Asean chair is still adamant the joint communiqué will not be issued if the items are mentioned.
A suggestion has been made to summarize the six principles that Asean issued in late July and then include them in the joint communiqué.
However, the chair is ready to issue the so-called agreed key points of the discussion in the form of letters and annexes. Apart from the disputes, other issues are still a work in progress without any consensus.
Some Asean countries are not happy with such an approach. They prefer to see a proper document issued as a joint communiqué – detailing the decisions being made and progress within Asean through a one-year cycle. Most importantly, it is the norm, representing the grouping's common grounds through give and take. Others think it is too late.
Nonetheless, Asean still needs an official document for its decisions and accomplishments. The senior official meetings in Phnom Penh this week are pivotal as they will decide if it is practical to issue the joint communiqué at the end of the informal ministerial meeting set for September 27 in New York. There is no sign of it at this juncture. Failure to do so
would set a precedent that could undermine future Asean meetings to break away from the traditional practice of consensus making.
Over the past eight weeks, Beijing has tried its best to manage growing criticism and allegations that it was behind Phnom Penh's intransigence. Strangely enough, within Asean, the focus continued to zero in on the role of the chair and its responsibility.
In Asean history, when the majority of members agree, the minority tends to mellow or give in to meet the others half way. That has been the practice over the past 45 years. In this case, all nine members agreed (Laos and Myanmar would follow the consensus) with the prepared text on the dispute while only the chair opposed it, trumping the rest of
To further ease the tension and give assurance that China's rise was peaceful, China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi visited three friendly Asean members – Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Through diplomatic channels, China has also sent a consistent signal to Thailand and Singapore that it is now ready to begin the dialogue with Asean to work on the substance of a code of conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea, providing other Asean countries – the claimants specifically – also adhere to principles enshrined in the declaration of conduct not to raise tensions in the disputed maritime zone. Both Cambodia and
Thailand are vying to host the first CoC dialogue.
Before the current hiccup, Phnom Penh held one such meeting ahead of the ministerial conference in early July. The outcome was positive but short-lived with China agreeing to hold talks on the CoC in September at a venue to be decided. However, after the bickering over the South China Sea, Beijing became recalcitrant and postponed the meeting, saying the time was not ripe.
For its part, Thailand, as the coordinating country of Asean-China (2012-2015) has dual objectives – the release of a joint communiqué – and to play host to the inaugural CoC meeting ahead of the East Asian Summit. Without these steps, Bangkok feels it would be difficult to mend the rifts within Asean and its dialogue partners. With Brunei and Myanmar as the incoming chair next year and 2014 respectively,
Thailand would have to perform a delicate balancing act as it would find itself caught in a maze of multiple relations between a strategic ally and a strategic partner.
China and Asean realize they must come together and move on with the CoC. Without this important inaugural meeting, the upcoming summit in 10 weeks that the Asean leaders have scheduled with the world's eight powerful leaders – from the US, China, Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand - officially known as the East Asia Summit (EAS), could be jeopardized.
New leadership transitions in the US and China, together with uncertain groundswells that were on display in recent weeks in the region, are not conducive for the summiteers.
For instance, any discussion on the South China Sea at the EAS would immediately impact on the new leadership in the US and China and their ties with Asean. If the incumbent US president wins the election, he will certainly attend |the EAS and could raise the dispute again as in the Bali meeting last year. Should the Republican candidate take over, stronger US rhetoric is to be expected on the South China Sea. That would be problematic for the Chinese leaders who have to respond to any allegation or comment.
For now Beijing wants to ascertain that the controversial issue would not be on the EAS agenda.
From China's perspective, once the issue has been raised, other non-Asean EAS members would follow in droves. It's a far cry from past summits since 2005. Prior to the US inclusion in the EAS, under the agenda to discuss the regional situation, the leaders had the flexibility to raise any issue that concerned them. They chose among others to focus on non-traditional security issues and Asean connectivity.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a well-known commentator on Asean and Southeast Asia affairs.