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    Southeast Asia
     Nov 29, 2012


ASEAN's fast fade to irrelevance
By Richard Javad Heydarian

MANILA - The recently concluded Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN) Summit in many ways represented a critical juncture for not only enhancing regional security amid the ongoing maritime disputes in the South China Sea but also the future relevance of the regional grouping.

Since 2010, ASEAN has come under tremendous pressure to rein in growing territorial tensions by conflicting parties in the South China Sea, especially China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Operating on the principles of consensus and consultation, the regional body has lacked the necessary coherence, mandate, and institutional teeth to enforce its principles of multilateralism and

 

non-use of force regarding issues related to territorial maritime disputes.

To be sure, ASEAN has achieved some progress in dealing with the ongoing territorial conflicts. Recognizing the gravity of the intensifying maritime disputes, the ASEAN summits in Vietnam (2010) and Indonesia (2011) attained perceptible successes on (i) recognizing the deleterious impact of ongoing disputes on regional security and (ii) the necessity to develop appropriate multilateral mechanisms to contain China's territorial assertiveness, regulate the behavior of all claimant states along the principles of international law, and peacefully resolve the disputes.

However, this year's assumption of ASEAN's chairmanship by Cambodia has arguably undercut earlier institutional and multilateral gains. During the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in July, Cambodia blocked the inclusion of the ongoing disputes in the final communique, provoking uproar among regional states such as the Philippines and Vietnam. The two latter ASEAN members desperately hoped for a diplomatic breakthrough for the development of a legally binding regional code of conduct to complement the only symbolic 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

As a result, ASEAN failed for the first time in the grouping's history to arrive at a consensus to issue a communique, calling the very relevance and internal coherence of the organization into question.

Months of rising diplomatic tensions followed between the Philippines and Cambodia, with other ASEAN members such as Indonesia - the region's informal leader - desperately trying to rescue the organization from internal disintegration. While Cambodia was accused of doing China's bidding, the Philippines and Vietnam were criticized for playing an overly aggressive card towards China over the territorial disputes.

As allies of the United States, Vietnam and the Philippines were also accused of pushing ASEAN towards confrontation with China (the region's biggest trading partner), while attempting to re-align ASEAN with an essentially US-led regional order.

Just months after the AMM, China, which prefers a predominantly bilateral approach to resolving disputes with its weaker individual neighbors, informally thanked Cambodia for its stand by providing more than US$500 million in soft loans and grants. The Philippines and Vietnam, meanwhile, deepened their military relations with the US and stepped up their diplomatic pressure on China and Cambodia.

This is why some analysts believed the recently concluded 2012 ASEAN Summit represented a make-or-break moment for the region.

Regional fires
Today, the South China Sea increasingly resembles a maritime battlefield, hosting a growing number of military garrisons, naval fortifications, and adjacent military exercises by contesting parties. In this sense, the militarization of the South China Sea disputes is arguably the biggest challenge to regional security, threatening freedom of navigation in one of the world's most important maritime trade arteries.

ASEAN, as an engine of integration in Southeast Asia and beyond, could potentially play a decisive role by containing tensions between China and regional claimant states, and advancing legal measures to regulate the behavior of conflicting parties. Though these territorial tensions are nothing new, with some dating back to the early decades of the 20th century, a number of factors in the post-Cold War era have exacerbated the situation, including:
1. The strategic vacuum resulting from the US's withdrawal from its major military bases in the Philippines in 1992;
2. The dramatic rise of China as a global power in the last decade, feeding its political ambitions as well as naval capabilities;
3. The discovery of sizeable amounts of hydrocarbon reserves in the South China Sea amid rapid industrialization across the region;
4. The emergence of popular nationalism as a bedrock of the Chinese national psyche at a time communism has lost its ideological resonance in an increasingly market-oriented environment;
5. America's "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region as Washington attempts to capitalize on the region's expanding consumer markets and contain/constrain China's regional ascendancy;
6. Political demagoguery over territorial issues by different governments in East Asia, especially during sensitive electoral cycles;
7. Regional allies testing America's military commitment by taking an increasingly tough stance against China's perceived rising maritime threat.

Meanwhile, there has been a perceptible fracture within ASEAN itself with China's and the US's regional allies taking divergent positions over the organization's responsibility and approach to resolving ongoing disputes.

As the US "pivots" to the Asia-Pacific region, a new geopolitical layer of heightened Sino-American competition for hegemony has entered the picture, further complicating efforts at disentangling legal maritime issues from broader geopolitical dynamics.

Dashed hopes
Prior to this month's ASEAN summit, there was a sense of cautious optimism. Recognizing the futility of a confrontational approach, the Philippines vigorously sought some form of rapprochement with both Cambodia and China, while the leadership transition in Beijing also represented an opening for a new foreign policy direction, especially on territorial disputes in adjacent waters.

US President Barack Obama's call for an "easing of tensions" over the disputes, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's earlier identification of regional maritime conflicts as a "critical issue" in need of immediate and peaceful resolution added urgency and weight to Obama's bilateral discussions with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of the ASEAN Summit. During its bilateral meeting with the US, Cambodia was also hoping for greater aid, better strategic ties and debt relief.

There was thus some hope among observers and certain ASEAN states that the summit would not be a repeat of the earlier AMM fiasco. According to this reasoning, Cambodia would choose to prioritize its global reputation and relevant ties with the US and other ASEAN states over particularistic bilateral ties with China.

Cambodia was set to simultaneously host not only the much-anticipated gathering of Southeast Asian head of states, but also the pan-Pacific ASEAN+3 and East Asia Summits, bringing together all leading Pacific powers including the US, China, Japan, and India.

"The EAS in particular will provide Cambodia with the opportunity to restore some of its credibility after the public embarrassment of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in July," argued Gregory Poling and Alexandra Sander of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) ahead of the summit. "... If the EAS goes demonstrably better than the AMM did, Cambodia's image will have a chance to recover and some of the ASEAN skeptics will be quieted."

However, Hun Sen again blocked the inclusion of the maritime disputes in the formal summit agenda, claiming that there was a "consensus" among member states to exclude maritime conflicts. His actions prompted a swift rebuke by Philippine President Benigno Aquino, who launched a formal protest against the motion, arguing there was no such consensus and that the issue was too integral to regional security to be excluded from this year's discussions.

"Among the principles that the ASEAN community has pledged to abide by is that of centrality…Prevailing tensions in the area stand to impact regional peace and stability," Aquino stated in his formal intervention during the ASEAN+3 Summit. "We reiterate our call on all parties concerned to avoid the threat or use of force, and to adhere to universally recognized principles of international law in settling disputes... because respect for the rule of law remains the great equalizer in the relations among nations [especially between China and the Philippines]."

Aquino's intervention was notably backed by certain claimant and non-claimant states in attendance, including Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Japan. The Philippine delegation couldn't hide its frustration, with Aquino - through multiple interventions - seeking the diplomatic support of (potential or actual) sympathetic states such as the US, Japan, India, and Australia.

Most importantly, Aquino urged greater commitment by the US to the resolution of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. "Each one of our nations has a stake in the stability of Southeast Asia. The United States understands this and, for this reason, has chosen to work with us to ensure the peace and continuous advancement of our region," Aquino stated during the summit. "The ASEAN route is not the only route for us."

Richard Javad Heydarian is a foreign affairs analyst focusing on Iran and international security. He is the author of the upcoming book The Economics of the Arab Spring: How Globalization Failed the Arab World, Zed Books, 2013. He can be reached at jrheydarian@gmail.com

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


Manila eyes new South China Sea horizon (Nov 21, '12)

 

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