Ahead of achieving the 2015 ASEAN community vision, the regional grouping has been confronted by escalating differences between its members. It is for the first time in the 45 years of its successful existence that ASEAN has failed to conclude its meeting with a joint communiqué. The recent ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) held in July 2012 has raised many speculations on the credibility of the regional organisation. But the major concern is the polarised factions created within ASEAN.
Joint statements have always followed ASEAN meetings in the ‘ASEAN way’, marking the political unity of the forum. But in the AMM, the grouping failed to come up with a joint communiqué over the issue of the South China Sea (SCS) dispute.
The debate over whether ASEAN as a regional forum should be involved in the resolution of the SCS dispute continues, and the mounting tension in the forum has created a rift within ASEAN. It’s not only a great disappointment to the members but also a deep disgrace to the community. This exposes the members’ inability to overcome differences and reach common ground on thorny issues.
The issue of SCS has periodically placed the regional organisation in major dilemmas. On one hand, Beijing emphasises a bilateral resolution of the dispute and on the other, Philippines and Vietnam stress on resolving the dispute through ASEAN. This time, at the ministerial meeting, some of the ASEAN members were found to be in support of the Beijing policy to resolve the SCS dispute bilaterally. At the AMM, members discussed the recent developments in the South China Sea ranging from the recent confrontation between Philippines and China in the Scarborough Shoal to Vietnam’s question on the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The members also decided to finalise the ASEAN-China code of conduct on the SCS dispute but failed to reach a consensus on the issue. Cambodia, the ASEAN Chair for 2012, stated that a joint statement was not issued because the matters discussed were bilateral concerns and should not have been bought to the regional forum discussion.
Philippine Foreign Minister Albert Del Rosario stated that Cambodia failed as the ASEAN Chair to meet a concurrence in the meeting, jeopardising the integrity of ASEAN. Philippines accused the chair of taking a self-centred decision influenced and intimidated by Beijing. There were also accusations that Cambodian leaders had discussed the joint statement draft with their Chinese counterparts before declaring the non-issuance of the statement. On the other hand, Cambodian leaders have defended themselves stating that the decision was not influenced by any external powers, abided to the ASEAN objectives and ASEAN ministerial meeting communiqué (Reuters).
China leveraging economic aid to Cambodia raises many eyebrows on Cambodia’s decision resulting in China’s interest. The Economist reported that some of the maps in Phnom Penh have places with Chinese names on the South China Sea, which itself proves that Cambodia, indebted to China’s economic assistance, has no stand of its own on the SCS dispute. It seems China has managed to keep ASEAN away from meeting any resolution on the SCS dispute so far. ASEAN had been trying to conclude a code of conduct on the South China Sea dispute with China for more than 10 years now but to no avail.
Whether or not Cambodia had taken a stand for China, it is quite clear that the expansion of China’s influence in the region has shaken ASEAN’s unity. The present discord within ASEAN members is perceived by the international community as China’s assertiveness and influence in the region. It will be a major challenge for ASEAN members to overcome this disparity. Furthermore, another major challenge for ASEAN is Sino-US rivalry which has a major impact on ASEAN, this time challenging ASEAN solidarity.
The influence of external powers on ASEAN’s decision-making is evident from the factions now seen within Southeast Asian countries. Caught in the dilemma over the future of the organisations and ASEAN relations with China and the US, the members have now decided to go their own way to protect their self-interest over the forum’s cohesion and common interest. Cambodia and Laos, indebted to Chinese economic assistance, are believed to be in the Chinese camp. Philippines and Vietnam, who are in a tussle with China over the SCS are supposed to have the support of the US. The US has been repeatedly insisting that the ASEAN finalise the code of conduct with China on the SCS dispute. It has also emphasised that Philippines and Vietnam should play a more assertive role in ASEAN over the South China Sea against China.
A consensus among ASEAN members should have been reached over the ASEAN-China code of conduct on the South China Sea before settling the agreement with China. ASEAN could have avoided the rift if a consensus was reached amongst themselves in a meeting separate from the ARF or EAS ministerial meeting. Be that as that it may, there surfaces a major question: Has the expansion of ASEAN into ASEAN+1, ASEAN+3, ARF, EAS tainted the cohesive image of the regional organisation?