Monday, August 6, 2012

Silver Lining in ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Impasse?

The astute-as-usual Kavi Chongvittakorn writes in today’s Nation about the continuing impasse resulting from last month’s ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting in Cambodia.  Khun Kavi writes that ASEAN is trying to issue a joint declaration that would substitute for the inchoate joint communiqué; he feels that ASEAN must issue this joint declaration by Wednesday, ASEAN Day, or risk a major embarrassment for the regional grouping. 

I would agree with this, but the real task will be what happens at the ASEAN Summit in November.  Even a delayed joint statement will not be as important as what happens in Cambodia later this year when the national leaders meet.

Khun Kavi does report on a possible silver lining from the entire impasse:

There have been some informal discussions among officials and academics about the need to come up with the rule of procedure to guide a rotating chair in the future. At the moment, there are no clear rules concerning the Asean chair and its relations with other Asean organs and how the Asean Secretary General and its staff can be of assistance. The Asean foreign ministers took things for granted that they would be able to form a consensus on any issue, albeit disagreements, as in the past four decades. But the Phnom Penh incident changed all that.

I think establishing such rules would be a natural progression of the formalization process established by the signing of the ASEAN Charter in 2007.  If the relationship between the ASEAN institutions, including the ASEAN Chair, ASEAN Summit, ASEAN Secretary General and ASEAN Secretariat, can be formalized, this will benefit the administration of the ASEAN Economic Community, which already has several major agreements and subsidiary agreements covering its implementation.

The other shoe to drop, of course, would be how such rules would be administered and enforced?   For example, should there be a repeat of the Cambodia ministerial meeting, who would resolve the dispute?  The ASEAN Charter states that the ultimate authority in ASEAN is the ASEAN Summit of leaders. Hence the current impasse can be resolved by the ASEAN Summit, and its resolution is following this path.  In all likelihood it will require the personal intervention of the ASEAN leaders in Cambodia to resolve the dispute. 

Clearly, however, such an approach is not good for ASEAN.  Waiting more than 3 months for the ASEAN leaders to resolve a dispute with the ASEAN Chair will subject the regional grouping to more diplomacy-by-press-release and criticisms via the media.  This is not good for ASEAN’s relatively weak institutions. 

Khun Kavi points out that next year, ASEAN will review the ASEAN Charter.  I agree that this would be a good time to discuss putting rules into place to govern intra-ASEAN relationships.  By then, Brunei will have taken over as ASEAN Chair.  In my view, Cambodia’s reluctance to raise the South China Sea issue will be less pronounced after its term as ASEAN Chair ends, because ultimately Hun Sen will act to form and rebalance its current pro-China tilt.  Hun Sen didn’t become the longest-serving ASEAN leader without some survival skills, so I don’t think he will either pursue a completely obstructionist approach at the ASEAN Summit or after Cambodia’s ASEAN Chair term ends. But while Cambodia is ASEAN Chair this year, Cambodia looks likely to keep whatever diplomatic commitments it has made to China.

In any event, the silver lining in the impasse may be recognization of the need to strengthen the ASEAN institutions and their relationships within and without ASEAN. Let’s hope that the informal discussion can go beyond the relatively small circle of academics and officials who study ASEAN and reach into the ASEAN leadership.