It looks like Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa has put together a face-saving ASEAN joint statement on the South China Sea issue. Although it is impossible to “unring the bell” of the missed ASEAN foreign ministers’ joint communiqué in Cambodia, the statement should serve as a marker for the ASEAN Summit to be held in November in Cambodia. It would be extremely humiliating for Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen to allow a similar episode to occur during the summit, particularly in the presence of his peers among the ASEAN national leaders as well as the ASEAN Regional Forum leaders who will also attend the summit. At least that is the intention behind the new joint statement. I hope that is the case.
Thus Indonesia comes through again to provide leadership in ASEAN, like in last year’s Preah Vihear dispute between Cambodia and Thailand. But unlike last year, Indonesia had no formal ASEAN role, as Cambodia is now ASEAN chair, and not Indonesia. Should this be a cause of concern? Not necessarily. Regardless of any formal role in ASEAN, the relative size and historical legacy of Indonesia will make the country a natural leader in Southeast Asia. After all, Germany does not currently hold any formal leadership role in the EU, yet its leadership in the current Eurozone crisis is not lessened in any way by the lack of a formal institutional role.
Nevertheless, the impasse following the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting does highlight the need to improve the ASEAN institutions. Again, Kavi Chongvittakorn in the Nation eloquently makes the case for improving the resources for the ASEAN Secretariat.
Of course, I would agree. The ASEAN Secretariat does need more funding, not just to hire more staff and expand its physical plant, but to improve its institutional memory. Currently, there are only one or two archivists in the ASEAN Secretariat who are dealing with mounds of uncatalogued paper records. Getting to grips with this internal institutional legacy is necessary for ASEAN to cope with the challenges of the future. Perhaps one of the ASEAN aid dialogue partners could fund an archival project, if ASEAN is not willing to fund it.
Beyond improving funding and staff for the ASEAN Secretariat, ASEAN also needs to address the very limited nature of the ASEAN Secretariat’s powers, at least in ASEAN Economic Community matters. I have written about this issue before, and I think this should be reconsidered during next year’s ASEAN Charter review, which is mandated by Article 50 of the Charter.
Finally, the impasse in Cambodia may have validated Vietnam’s choice of foreign affairs vice-minister Le Luong Minh as ASEAN Secretary-General-designate, at least from its point of view. Although the ASEAN Secretary General is supposed to represent all of the ASEAN membership, Vietnam should be assured that he will more than account for its views on the South China Sea dispute, given both his background and UN experience.