Thursday, July 28, 2016

ASEAN - How should Asean deal with Cambodia?

The Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) was once again hamstrung over the weekend as it struggled to cobble together diplomatic language that could reflect a variety of positions on the disputed South China Sea. The uncooperative cog was Cambodia, a key ally of China, who objected to any mention of an international court ruling against Beijing’s expansive claim in the disputed waterway.

Ultimately, Asean’s unity of purpose prevailed as foreign ministers on Monday issued a joint communique calling for the peaceful resolution of disputes, including “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes”.

But Asean cohesiveness is bound to be tested again given the divergent positions among the member states, especially between those concerned with Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the regional maritime domain and those with close economic and ideological ties with the world’s second-largest economy.

Some observers have suggested dismissing Cambodia from the regional grouping so that Asean can move forward on the South China Sea.

Since 2012, Cambodia has sorely tested Asean’s spirit of consultation and consensus. That year, as Asean chair, it blocked the issuance of a foreign ministers’ joint communique as there was no agreement on the South China Sea. Over the next few years, the Indo-Chinese nation has repeatedly thwarted Asean consensus by advocating Chinese positions.

With tensions running high over the South China Sea after Beijing refused to comply with an international ruling on July 12 that invalidates its expansive claim, Cambodia is again the renegade whose affiliation with China seems to be ruining its relations with Asean.

There are no existing provisions in the Asean Charter regarding the dismissal or withdrawal of a member state, but the option may be raised again in the future if the grouping cannot agree on divisive issues.

The withdrawal scenario is not limited to the South China Sea, as smaller member states can easily find themselves exposed to lobbying by major powers over other geopolitical issues of the day. But will this move be ideal for Asean?

For Mr Ong Keng Yong, Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large and former Asean Secretary-General, it is a moot point.

“They (Cambodia) will not leave because their non-Asean ‘sugar daddy’ wants them to stay in Asean to be useful,” he told TODAY, referring to China. He believes it is better to continue persuading and appealing to their sense of commitment to Asean unity and integrity.

“There are no punitive options. We just have to make the cost of political duplicity very high for the errant members,” added Mr Ong, who is also the executive deputy chairman of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

Cambodia’s withdrawal from Asean is also unlikely to do the regional bloc any good. Already, the grouping is struggling to remain united and relevant to developments in the region.

Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan wrote on Facebook that an inter-state organisation consisting of very diverse sovereignties, like Asean, can operate only by consensus. “Any other mode of decision-making will create stresses that will tear the organisation apart,” he said.

RSIS associate research fellow Henrick Tsjeng pointed out that Asean unity is fragile. “At a time when Brexit is causing a lot of concern about the future of the EU (European Union) as well as a crisis of confidence, such talk would only heighten such fears of the same happening to Asean.”

Ejecting countries deemed pro-China could push these states even closer to the East Asian nation, and cause the remaining Asean countries to veer strongly towards the US in response. Conversely, the opposite will occur if those that are perceived as pro-US are ejected.

“Both scenarios will result in Asean compromising its independence and neutrality as well as a divided South-east Asia, which is not in the interests of Asean member states or extra-regional countries,” he added.

Besides a review of Cambodia’s membership, another option is to adopt the “Asean-X” working method for difficult issues — an arrangement where some members can go ahead to implement decisions, while those that need more time are given a more flexible timeline.

For instance, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam have been given flexibility to abolish all tariffs by 2018 under the Asean Economic Community, while the other member states had already done so by last year.

Professor Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines, said during a seminar on the implications of the Hague ruling that it may be time for littoral states in the South China Sea to consider forming an Asean maritime bloc so that the grouping can be effective on the issue even if there are disagreements among the member states.

There are no obstacles within Asean to prevent member states with specific interests from forming special and ad-hoc groupings, noted Prof Batongbacal at the seminar organised by the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute on Monday.

He pointed out that such a mechanism would not be unusual among Asean member states, given that Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia had worked together to enhance maritime security in the economically vital Straits of Malacca. In addition, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are also working together to tighten security in the waters off Borneo after a spike in kidnapping in the area by extremist militants.

In fact, the recent ruling by The Hague has shown clearly how the South China Sea should be shared and these countries could use it as a basis for future cooperation, he added.

“At this point, it is obvious that it is very difficult to get Asean to unify around (South China Sea) issues simply because political and practical realities create different interests,” explained Prof Batongbacal. “Rather than to allow this to break Asean every year (as the leaders and ministers meet), it is better that we recognise that certain members of the bloc do have certain key interests that are different from the rest.”

Asean as an organisation is open enough to allow those with key interests to group together — even if they are not acting as a bloc — to act consistently, he added.

But despite the conveniences of the Asean-X formula, member states have been judicious about bringing it into play, as excluding certain member states and sidelining their national interests could harm regional unity in the long run.

As Ambassador Ong put it: “It is not possible to have Asean-X because the principle must be first accepted by all Asean member states and the errant parties will not sign their own death warrant.”

Ms Moe Thuzar, a lead researcher at the Asean Studies Centre in the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, pointed out that there have been instances “where the recalcitrance of one member state has occasioned exasperated expressions from other members about the level of commitment to Asean”.

Myanmar used to be that recalcitrant member. Today, it is Cambodia, she said, adding: “So, the ball is in Cambodia’s court to shape up.”

If Cambodia fails to play ball with Asean, the grouping’s unity is sure to be further tested over the South China Sea issue in the lead-up to the Asean Summit in Vientiane in September.

Albert Wai

You can find older posts regarding ASEAN politics and economics news at SBC blog, and older posts regarding health and healthcare at IIMS blog. I thank you.

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