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Asean must reassess its ‘one voice’ decision-making

The failure of foreign ministers of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) to reach consensus on the contentious South China Sea issue yesterday at their annual meeting comes as no surprise.

Asean must reassess its ‘one voice’ decision-making

Leaders of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) pose for a group photo during the opening ceremony of the 25th ASEAN summit at Myanmar International Convention Center in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Wednesday, Nov 12, 2014. Photo: AP

The failure of foreign ministers of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) to reach consensus on the contentious South China Sea issue yesterday at their annual meeting comes as no surprise.

The writing has been on the wall. Last month, at a special meeting with China in Kunming, the rifts within Asean were exposed after it withdraw a statement containing strong language on China’s assertive behaviour in staking its claims in the strategic waterway, after Beijing rallied its allies in the grouping to block it.

Yet the stakes are higher this time, coming less than two weeks after the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled in favour of the Philippines’ case against China’s claims in the South China Sea.

Clearly, the world is watching to see whether the Asean ministers will be able to speak with one voice on the importance of respecting the outcome of the ruling and adhering to a rules-based international order.

Once again, Cambodia is widely reported to be the main culprit in blocking Asean consensus on the issue. The ghost of Phnom Penh has risen to haunt Asean again. When Cambodia was the Asean Chair in 2012, it vetoed the inclusion of the South China Sea in the foreign ministers’ joint communique. As a result, Asean had to bear the embarrassment of failing to issue the document for the first time in its history.

History now looks set to be repeated, unless the Asean foreign ministers and their senior officials can somehow find common ground today or tomorrow. Yet it would be strategically preferable for Asean to endure the ignominy of failing to issue a joint communique rather than a watered-down version on the South China Sea. This will send a strong signal that Asean will not be held hostage by the narrow interests of one member state.

To be sure, Asean unity will take a serious hit, but this is one bullet worth biting. At the same time, recent developments have raised the question of Asean’s strategic direction and future, given that it cannot engage in credible discussions or hold a position on a critical issue that many consider a flashpoint in its own backyard.

As events in Phnom Penh, Kunming and now Vientiane have shown, what works for the original five members of Asean increasingly appears to fail the 10-member grouping. While China is the common denominator in all these “developments”, Asean should tend to its own house before laying blame on external parties. In this respect, it is most disconcerting that while affirming its support for Asean, Cambodia cannot appreciate the seriousness of the issue and see the larger strategic picture.

Cambodia can no longer afford to ignore its fellow Asean member states’ growing frustration at this sort of obstructionist behaviour.

Notwithstanding the fact that Asean is an inter-governmental organisation, there is an implicit understanding — and imperative — for some degree of collective responsibility and mutual support.

Asean is an “association”, not a country club. Cambodia needs to understand that stymieing Asean to acquiesce to China dearly costs Asean’s viability as any form of a vehicle to regional needs and challenges. Cambodia must decide if its future lies with Asean or with its larger, richer neighbour. Asean should also consider if its future is better with Cambodia on the inside or outside.

Currently, there is no provision in the Asean Charter — the regional organisation’s “operational document” — for either withdrawal or dismissal of a member. But “Cambrexit” cannot be a question left unanswered if Cambodia persists in undermining the wider interests of the group.

At the same time, it is also clear that the extent of China’s influence in Asean goes beyond Cambodia, even though Phnom Penh has been most liberal with its use of the Asean veto.

To save itself, Asean needs to address the debilitating effect of consensus decision-making. The power to veto by any one member state must be removed. Institutionalising the “Asean minus X” principle — a formula for flexible participation instead of full consensus — in political issues will keep the Trojan horses in check and also improve Asean’s effectiveness and decision-making.

This is a battle Asean must fight and win. The alternative of keeping up the pretence of “saving face” and unity will condemn Asean to ridicule and obscurity. The question is, who will lead this battle?



Tang Siew Mun is Head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. These views are his own.

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