Saturday, July 14, 2012

'Severe dent on ASEAN's credibility'

PHNOM PENH - The Association of South-east Asian Nations' (ASEAN) failure to reach consensus and issue a joint communique at the end of its meetings in Cambodia this week - a first in the bloc's 45-year history - has put "a severe dent" on its credibility, said Singapore's Foreign Minister K Shanmugam.

The failure underscores deep divisions within the 10-member bloc amid conflicting territorial claims in the resource-rich South China Sea involving four of its members plus China and Taiwan.

Some members have traded blame on the failure while several officials have expressed disappointment with the outcome, which has cast doubt on plans to establish a regional economic community by 2015.

"To put it bluntly, it is a severe dent on ASEAN's credibility. We talk about issues in the world in past communiques, but we are unable to deal with something that's happening right here in the neighbourhood and say something about it," said Mr Shanmugam.

"It is absolutely clear to all of us that we ought not to take any sides on any disputes. That is out of the question.

"The question is whether we can come up with a consensus or form of reflecting a desire to move forward on these issues in a way that is win-win for everyone. … It is sad that we are not even able to agree on that. We talk about ASEAN centrality, ASEAN neutrality, ASEAN connectivity, ASEAN community in 2015, but before all of that, is the central issue of credibility."

The bloc's inability to agree on a communique is unprecedented, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said. "This is strange territory for me," he told reporters. "It's very, very disappointing that, at this 11th hour, ASEAN is not able to rally around a certain common language on the South China Sea. We've gone through so many problems in the past, but we've never failed to speak as one."

The ministerial summit broke down on Thursday. Participants had earlier agreed on key aspects of a draft maritime Code of Conduct but talks foundered after China insisted the ASEAN forum was not the appropriate place to discuss the matter. An emergency meeting called for early yesterday morning failed to break the deadlock.

ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said the Philippines and Vietnam wanted the communique to include a reference to a recent standoff between China and the Philippines at a shoal in the South China Sea claimed by both countries.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs issued a statement yesterday lambasting host Cambodia - a close ally of China - for "consistently opposing any mention of the Scarborough Shoal".

Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said his government does not support any side in the disputes, adding that the failure to issue a statement lies with all ASEAN members, not just Cambodia. "I have told my colleagues that the meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers is not a court, a place to give a verdict about the dispute," he said.

However, Mr Yang Razali Kassim, Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said: "Cambodia has to take responsibility for this debacle, which has crucial lessons for ASEAN unity going forward."

He added: "This failure to display a united ASEAN stand on strategic issues when under pressure reflects Cambodia's leanings towards China, which Phnom Penh seemed to favour, over solidarity with fellow ASEAN members over the territorial dispute. In so doing, Cambodia as the ASEAN chair shows its lack of experience and diplomatic skill as chair to preserve ASEAN solidarity."

Associate Professor Antonio Rappa, Head of Management and Security Studies at SIM University's School of Business, said that in the next few weeks, "it will be important for ASEAN to reassert its position" and "come together".

The differences represent a learning experience for ASEAN, said Mr Surin, who added that the failure to issue a communique - which serves as a record of decisions at the summit - means that ASEAN will not be able to proceed on some of the action points it agreed to, such as a joint institute for peace and reconciliation to be located in Jakarta.

Mr Shanmugam also elaborated on the implications to Singapore. "I have previously remarked the international political environment is one where the rules are often unclear between big and small countries. We are a small country and, for us, the more rules of engagement and a structured framework within countries particularly in the region have to operate, the better it is for us. Otherwise, the smallest country on the totem pole would be left without rules." Agencies