Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Impasse at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting (Updated)

I have been asked to comment on last week’s ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Cambodia and its failure to issue a joint communiqué, due to differences on how to address the South China Sea/Spratly Islands issue. 

First, this blog’s focus is on the economic pillar of the ASEAN community, so I won’t comment directly on the impasse, other than on how this reflects on ASEAN institutions (see next point).  For an excellent political analysis, see Kavi Chongkittavorn’s take here

Second, despite some breathless reporting, the impasse does not represent the end of ASEAN.  Yes, it was quite unfortunate that an ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting ended without a joint communiqué for the first time ever.  Apparently this represents a clash between the role of the ASEAN chair and ASEAN way of consensus.  From an institutional point of view, perhaps what happened was the best possible outcome, given the extreme differences involved.  In other words, a failure to reach consensus – publicly explained by the participants in the transparent manner that has happened since the meeting – could be viewed as preferable to a watered-down communiqué, e.g., an agreement to do nothing.   The controversy may even force all sides to come together by the time of the ASEAN Summit in November.   Other areas of ASEAN decisionmaking would have been improved by publicly acknowledging disagreement rather than issuing a weak agreement that addresses nothing.

Third, diplomatic disputes in Southeast Asia usually do not spill over into economic integration matters on a permanent basis.   Philippine bananas may be a victim of the South China Sea dispute, but overall economic forces should still foster cooperation.  After all, at the same time China, Korea and Japan are discussing a tri-lateral free trade agreement, the China-Japan dispute over islands in the East China Sea.  In fact, the AEC has been cited by Thailand as contributing to the withdrawal of troops from the Preah Vihear temple area this week:


It's all too easy to forget how close Cambodia and Thailand were to armed conflict last year, and how Indonesia, empowered as ASEAN Chair by the ASEAN Charter, mediated a cease-fire.  

If anything then, ASEAN diplomats will busy over the next four months trying to avoid a similar impasse at the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia. Indonesia is again moving in to bridge the differences.  With no one wanting a repeat performance with national leaders in attendance, I think they’ll get the job done.