Keeping the calm over ASEAN’s troubled waters

Author: Kevin H.R. Villanueva, ADMU and University of Leeds

In the recent ASEAN diplomatic fracas, one hard truth has come out for the regional bloc: despite the desire to strike common ground, the 10 countries guard zealously against any encroachment on their national sovereignty and the interests of the state.

Yet another truth, perhaps more painful still, is that the resulting finger pointing is a very un-ASEAN thing to do. But some member states, especially Indonesia, have, thankfully, taken it upon themselves to mend the ties that fray.

The foreign ministers are at the heart of ASEAN. The fact that, at the 45th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh in July, the ministers were at odds on how to account for the contentious issue of overlapping territorial boundaries within the South China–West Philippine Sea — let alone how to resolve it — is profound cause for concern. It was the first time in ASEAN history that no joint communiqué was issued. The foreign ministers have, as a consequence, courted the unnecessary glare of bad publicity, and left the heads of state with more than a morsel to chew while they prepare for the ASEAN Summit in November 2012. Further, they have left ASEAN and its constituent states wide open to the adverse scrutiny of the international community — another un-ASEAN practice in the conduct of international affairs.

ASEAN is at a crucial stage in its dream to build a community by 2015. It will do well to keep in mind two things: firstly, the forefathers saw ASEAN as a regional security arrangement based on the value of ‘berkampung’, meaning to get together. This indigenous notion of ‘togetherness’, which has its equivalent in many parts of Southeast Asia, is an informal way of achieving a shared community objective. This is how Tan Sri Ghazali Shafie, the former Malaysian cabinet minister, and General Ali Moertopo of Indonesia, dreamed ASEAN to be while meeting in the ASEAN capitals in the mid-1960s. It is in this context that the broader strategic aims of regional economic, political and socio-cultural development would have to be sustained. These, reasoned Shafie, were the ‘ingredients of peace’.

Secondly, it was believed that the cost of losing the region’s grip on its political and diplomatic force was too high a price to pay for economic gain. This is why, Shafie further contended, that early on, the purpose of ASEAN, apart from securing economic advantage, was not ‘to puff the diplomatic pimples in public to make them look like big boils’. This is how, even to this day, ASEAN officials continue to ‘blunt’ intramural conflicts and build the confidence of the community. How do we apply these principles given the present controversy?

The shuttle diplomacy of Marty Natalegawa, the Indonesian foreign minister, has been swift, straightforward and wise. It has won the approbation of Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and their peers in ASEAN. Elements of the strategy can be gleaned from Philippines’ Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs Erlinda Basilio’s excellent account of the Ministerial Meeting. Their common strategy appears to have been to pick up on the ‘key elements’ of the proposed code of conduct on the South China Sea that ASEAN had already agreed on, or consolidate the bilateral consultations that the Philippines had been undertaking since 2011 with its ASEAN partners, for a proposed framework in the resolution of these competing claims. If this is correct, this is a very ASEAN thing to do: to look for the lowest common denominators and then build on them slowly and steadily.

The next step is to build trust instead of sowing fear. If the ASEAN member states make good on their commitment to commence drafting the Regional Code of Conduct, then the battle will have been half won in half time for the 2012 ASEAN Summit. All claimants should busy themselves in delivering their political commitments under the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to undertake ‘cooperative activities’, including marine environmental protection and scientific research; safety of navigation and communication at sea; search and rescue operations; and combating international crime, including but not limited to trafficking in illicit drugs, piracy and armed robbery at sea, and illegal traffic in arms.

Finally, the Philippines, before looking far and wide for solutions on a regional problem, ought first to look toward its neighbours. The US will make a good ally and it is good to listen to what they have to say, but keeping them out will keep everyone’s feet on the ground. The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs should then continue its purported ‘three-track’ — political, diplomatic and legal — approach, initially with countries that are willing to come to the bargaining table. This is not to defy China, but inviting, and keeping the doors open to, all who value and respect the universally recognised principles of international law.

In November, Cambodia will have the chance to keep the calm over the waterways that link ASEAN with China and the world. Whether it wants to lead ASEAN or China or ASEAN and China is a question that Cambodia must consider seriously.

Kevin H. R. Villanueva is Special Adviser for ASEAN Affairs at the Office of International Relations, Ateneo de Manila University and University Research Scholar at East Asian Studies (SMLC) and the School of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), University of Leeds.

A version of this article was first published here in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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  • S.Narendra

    The article is very insightful.