ASEAN a perennial quiet achiever

Author: Rodolfo Severino, ISEAS

On 12 November 2014, ASEAN leaders will gather in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s new capital, for their twice-yearly summit.

High on the ASEAN agenda for this November’s summit is, of course, the South China Sea. Failure to achieve consensus on the subject in the 2012 ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (the annual formal and regular meeting of the association’s foreign ministers) under the Cambodian foreign minister’s chairmanship caused the non-issuance of the joint communiqué, something that had never happened before — or since.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders pose for the group photo after the opening ceremony of the 24th ASEAN Summit in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, 11 May 2014. (Photo: AAP).

All but ignored by most commentators is the fact that less than ten days later, through the tireless efforts of Indonesia’s then foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, a statement was issued by all ASEAN governments, including Cambodia. The statement outlined ASEAN’s position on the sovereignty disputes over all or parts of the South China Sea, including the peaceful settlement of those disputes, and called for respect for international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the ‘early conclusion’ of a China-ASEAN Code of Conduct.

Also ignored has been the fact that, although only four of the ten ASEAN members have formal claims to sovereignty disputes pertaining to the South China Sea, all have interests in freedom of navigation and overflight there. These interests are based on treaty law and customary international law rather than on the strength of the most militarily powerful claimant in the South China Sea. The fact that ASEAN, like other regional associations of sovereign states, cannot resolve, but can take common positions on, disputes on sovereignty and other legal issues, is also often ignored.

Less dramatic but perhaps just as important is the leaders’ decision to establish the ASEAN Community by the end of 2015. As the deadline approaches, there are real questions about when the ASEAN Community, especially the ASEAN Economic Community with its promises of many integration measures, will kick in. Leaders at this November’s ASEAN Summit need to work through these questions and agree on some answers.

Shortly before the summit meetings commence, it would be in ASEAN’s interest for some senior politicians to make public and, if possible, collective, statements on issues currently plaguing the international community. One of them would be the rise of the Islamic State. Here, the ASEAN foreign ministers issued a statement in New York after a meeting with the US Secretary of State reportedly condemning the Islamic State. The statement also reiterated ASEAN’s commitment to countering terrorism in the region through the ASEAN Convention on Counter Terrorism and the ASEAN Comprehensive Plan of Action on Counter Terrorism, which seek to tackle the root causes of terrorism. Some or all of the contents of that statement may find their way into the ASEAN and East Asia Summit summaries.

In addition to the almost ritualistic pledges of support for the United Nations, leaders at the summit could stake out ASEAN positions on other live international issues, many of them still evolving.

The denuclearisation and re-unification of the Korean Peninsula are perennial topics of discussion. In the past, ASEAN tended to seek safety in UN Security Council resolutions and the Six-Party Talks on the denuclearisation of North Korea. To deviate from this would most likely involve consultations with the North Korean foreign minister, a regular participant in the ministerial-level ASEAN Regional Forum.

A key challenge for the future of ASEAN is whether the organisation will continue its current role as somewhat neutral convenor and hub of Asia Pacific foreign policy gatherings, or if it will take its own position on key international issues and make real the concept of ASEAN centrality.

Rodolfo C Severino, a retired Philippine diplomat and former ASEAN secretary general, is head of the ASEAN Studies Centre in the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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