ASEAN unity in the spotlight after South China Sea ruling

Christine T. Tjandraningsih, Kyodo News

Posted at Sep 06 2016 06:22 PM

VIENTIANE - As leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations gather this week in Vientiane, questions remain over whether the regional grouping can maintain its unity following an international tribunal's ruling that rejected China's vast claims to most of the South China Sea.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled on July 12 against China's claims to economic rights across large swathes of the South China Sea, which overlap with those of the Philippines and other neighboring countries, prompting Beijing to put pressure on ASEAN and seek favors from countries dependent on Chinese aid and investment.

An ASEAN foreign ministerial meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum, Asia's biggest annual security meeting, in late July stopped short of including any mention of the ruling in its chairman's statement, after a demand by the Philippines and Vietnam to say they "welcome" it was blocked by ASEAN members with close ties with China, most notably Cambodia.

Many have raised questions since then over whether ASEAN can maintain the unity it has always been proud of and whether consensus is still needed among its 10 member states when the issue touches on security and sovereignty.

"It is a good development that ASEAN does not always have a common position on a number of issues. It is a reflection of reality," Makmur Keliat, a senior analyst at the Jakarta-based research consultancy group Kenta Institute, said.

"It is good...because we know this country has taken this position, that country has taken that position. It is more transparent. It is based on national interest," he added.

He said the time has been coming to understand ASEAN not merely from the perspective of documents but from that of "real behavior," stressing that behavior is as important as the "dry documents" that show only a little development from one year to another.

On Tuesday morning in a meeting prior to the summit, ministers called for "concrete" ASEAN unity in dealing with regional challenges, according to Indonesian Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Wiranto, terming it a "mantra" for cooperation.

"Terrorist attacks, kidnappings, human trafficking, drug trade and illegal fishing are new, hard challenges faced by ASEAN, but with unity, such challenges can be overcome," said Wiranto, who led the Indonesian ministerial delegation.

Wiranto did not directly say whether the ministers touched on the divisive South China Sea issue, stating only that ASEAN has been able "to successfully manage the complex issue of peace and security in the region."

On ASEAN unity, Keliat, who is also a lecturer at the University of Indonesia, also stressed that consensus does not always suggest unanimity of position or voice.

"The principle of consensus actually reflects our politics. Why don't we have a rigid mechanism? Because consensus is a symbol of our politics, but is not stated clearly," he said.

"We have a level of comfortableness. If other countries don't feel comfortable with certain issues, there is no need for ASEAN to make a joint statement," he added.

Evan Laksmana, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, expressed a similar view, saying that sometimes consensus "can be an agreement to disagree -- not necessarily a stark choice between 'agree on all words' or 'no statement at all.'"

"Some of the group's strategic successes have happened via informal mechanisms without unanimous public statements. So let's not make unanimity of position in joint statements the be all and end all of centrality," Laksmana said in a piece published by the English-language newspaper Jakarta Post.

It is the step that has been taken by ASEAN, according to both observers, in dealing with China.

"We would like to maintain our good relationship with Japan, we would like to maintain our good relationship with the United States, but it does not mean that we cannot become friendly with China," Keliat said.

"(China) is a large country. We cannot neglect that. Japan also has a lot of investment in China, and because Japan also has interests with China (Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe has become more flexible," he added, stressing it will be more dangerous for the region if China becomes unstable.