2012 Sep 11
September 11, 2012

Time for a new ASEAN way

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If the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference in Phnom Penh will be remembered for anything, it will be for what went wrong rather than what was accomplished. For the first time in ASEAN’s 45-year history, the 10-nation grouping failed to deliver a joint statement, underscoring deep internal divisions behind the façade of unified consensus.

At the heart of the problem is the South China Sea, where certain member states have simmering territorial conflicts with China. In
particular, this has pitted Vietnam and the Philippines, proponents of a multilateral resolution to the disputes, against Cambodia, a close China ally whose position has been to keep the conflict from going international.

But rather than despairing over ASEAN’s future, the crisis of consensus should be looked upon as an important opportunity for change. Currently ASEAN summits and forums allow only for member states to air their concerns, which are often as varied as the reasons for why they are ultimately not jointly addressed. Because member states are not bound to honor any proposed or passed resolution, these assemblies lack the power to force action.

After the breakdown in Phnom Penh, it is clearly time to change all of that. Established in 1967 as a six-nation bulwark against the spread of communism, ASEAN continues operates on the principles of respect for each member’s national sovereignty and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.

Over the years, this arrangement has helped to avoid the creation of internal power blocs, where the biggest and most powerful states could have tried to dictate the affairs of smaller members. The absence of any binding force, however, has rendered ASEAN essentially ineffective in leading the region or resolving crises.

The future of ASEAN depends on how much its members are willing to give in order to take. If ASEAN is to become an effective force for change in Southeast Asia, it must have the ability to bind its members to resolutions. To be sure, consensus rather than majority rule will still serve the grouping. At the same time, ASEAN would be more effective if member states were willing to surrender a measure of sovereignty over certain international affairs. A supranational organization whose authority is legally binding would provide the teeth necessary for ASEAN to act when parties are in general agreement.

Much like a court of justice, a new binding arrangement would allow member states to opine and rule in favor or against certain group decisions. Dissension would necessarily be encouraged and protected, allowing for opposition voices to state countervailing views and opinions. To maintain a unified front, however, all member states would be required to honor and uphold any final resolution.

Consensus rule is far from perfect, as there will undoubtedly be times when member states believe certain resolutions work against their national interests. But the recent breakdown of unanimity in Phnom Penh represents a valuable opportunity to weigh ASEAN’s strengths and weaknesses, and make the necessary adjustments to improve its credibility as an effective organization.

Non-committal values

ASEAN’s motto, “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”, is a lofty ideal that to date has little basis in reality across the region of 600 million people. Many now hope that the ASEAN Economic Community planned for 2015 will through more regional trade, travel and transfers prompt faster economic growth and regional coherence.

Yet ASEAN states differ in almost every measurable way, ranging from levels of economic development to technological advancement to basic governing structures and principles. These differences have made it difficult to establish an agreed set of core values – nominally human rights, democracy, and the rule of law – to which all members sincerely subscribe and uphold.

ASEAN has not been completely negligent in protecting these values, seen in the recent creation of a dedicated, though non-binding, ASEAN human rights body. But with its complex mix of authoritarian, semi-democratic and democratic regimes, it would be naïve to assume that all ASEAN member states subscribe to these values in equal degrees.

Indeed, these divergent political outlooks are arguably the biggest stumbling block to transforming ASEAN from a talking shop into an effective regional and global player.

Independent research shows that countries whose values mirror or nearly mirror one another are more likely to resolve differences than with countries whose values do not align. While basic values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law are respected to varying degrees among ASEAN states, is it any wonder that related issues have so frequently failed to result in concrete, unified action?

Take, for example, Vietnam, which has recently experienced a significant deterioration of its human rights situation and continues to resist any move towards democratic rule. Vietnamese citizens enjoy certain basic civil liberties, but are strictly barred from voicing their opinions against the government lest they be charged and potentially jailed on anti-state charges.

Although Vietnam may share the Philippines’ position on the need to internationalize its South China Sea disputes with China, these two countries are no more alike than Singapore and Cambodia. The Vietnamese government has proven unwilling to compromise on even marginal matters of political and constitutional reform, while the Philippines accommodates a lively, if not unruly, democracy.

This is not a criticism strictly reserved for Vietnam. ASEAN members Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar all maintain various anti-democratic laws and measures aimed specifically at stifling dissent. Yet for ASEAN to move forward in a unified direction, all ten members must reach a common stance on these basic values.

An organization divided over basic questions of rights and freedoms cannot lay claim to having “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”, let alone reach a unified stance on more complex matters such as territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Every effective group needs a strong leader, ideally a person or state who possesses qualities others seek to emulate. In ASEAN’s context, such a leader would need to embody the wealth and technological prowess of Singapore, the economic power of Indonesia, the openness of Thailand and the bold rhetoric of the Philippines. Such a person or state, of course, is strictly hypothetical in ASEAN’s current context.

Through not without flaws and not a clear beacon of democracy, human rights and rule of law, Indonesia nonetheless would provide a compelling face for a new and improved ASEAN. Indonesia has stayed above the fray of South China Sea tensions and recently played a behind-the-scenes mediating role to keep internal divisions from becoming full-blown fissures over the issue.

With its strong bilateral ties with China and the United States, Indonesia is also well-positioned to navigate ASEAN the growing superpower rivalry for influence and advantage in the region. As this rivalry intensifies and the risk of divide and rule tactics rise, a unified ASEAN will be crucial to maintaining regional peace and stability.

Whether ASEAN can serve that role will remain doubtful without substantial and prompt changes in the grouping’s culture, rules and leadership. Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese Canadian lawyer in Ottawa, focusing on various areas international relations and international law.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online’s regular contributors. –Khanh Vu Duc, http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/NI11Ae01.html