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ASEAN deserves credit for standing up to China and US

The year-end Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summits and related meetings got off to an ignominious start when the 3rd ASEAN Defence Ministerial Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus) failed to issue a joint declaration for the first time since its formation in 2010. Parallels were drawn to the impasse at the 45th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) in 2012, which also failed to produce a consensus document. But this is where the similarities end. The debacle at the 45th AMM was chalked up to ASEAN’s failure to reach a unanimous decision to include the South China Sea (SCS) disputes in the joint communique.

The year-end Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summits and related meetings got off to an ignominious start when the 3rd ASEAN Defence Ministerial Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus) failed to issue a joint declaration for the first time since its formation in 2010. Parallels were drawn to the impasse at the 45th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) in 2012, which also failed to produce a consensus document. But this is where the similarities end. The debacle at the 45th AMM was chalked up to ASEAN’s failure to reach a unanimous decision to include the South China Sea (SCS) disputes in the joint communique.

The Cambodian Chair was widely perceived to have caved in to Chinese pressure for the omission. In comparison, it would be hard-pressed to fault ASEAN for the ADMM Plus failure.

To make ASEAN the scapegoat is unfair as the responsibility for the joint statement rests equally on the shoulders of the 18 member states of the ADMM Plus, comprising ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the United States.

In fact, the onus for the ADMM Plus fiasco is on the external parties, specifically China and the US. China did not favour a declaration that included any outright mention of the SCS.

The US, on the other hand, was adamant that the declaration should contain clear language on the SCS. Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein’s lament that “we could not reach a consensus” summed up the polarised positions on both sides.

On closer examination, ASEAN might have come out of the debacle stronger than perceived. According to an informed Philippine interlocutor, “it was better not to have a declaration than to have a declaration with no mention of the SCS”.

Indeed, it would have been a grave mistake if ASEAN had pushed for and agreed to a declaration that whitewashed the SCS disputes, as this would be sending the wrong strategic message to China that ASEAN has acquiesced to the former’s growing assertiveness in the disputed waters.

By demonstrating to China that it was willing to face up to international criticism for failing to issue the joint statement, ASEAN was, in fact, putting China on notice that it would not be cowed and was willing to bear short-term diplomatic embarrassment to affirm its cohesion and unity.

At the same time, ASEAN withstood US pressure by not openly taking on China at the Kuala Lumpur meeting.

Far from being disgraced, ASEAN stood tall by standing firm at the ADMM Plus meeting. By not bowing to either Chinese or US pressure, ASEAN rose above the fray of the Sino-US strategic rivalry.

While the ADMM Plus joint statement was unhinged by disagreements on the SCS issue, this contentious subject did find its way into the Chairman’s Statement.

In fact, the Chairman’s Statement followed past practices set in the 2010 and 2012 statements by affirming the importance of the Declaration on the Code of Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea and the desirability for the early conclusion of negotiations for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

The fact that the chairman’s statement is the prerogative of the ASEAN Chair gives the host country wide discretion to frame and cast the statement. This leeway also makes the Chair an important lobbying target. Malaysia again showed its steady hand in discharging its chairing duties. It was also during Malaysia’s chairmanship that the 48th AMM voiced some of the strongest language on the SCS disputes, notwithstanding the fact that China is Malaysia’s largest trade partner. Back in August, the AMM Joint Communique linked the SCS land reclamations by China with the erosion of trust and confidence, which in turn increased tensions, and undermined peace and stability in the region.

Malaysia’s Chairman’s Statement of the 10th East Asia Summit also did not skirt around the SCS disputes. In fact, it was one of the most visible issue in the text with five paragraphs devoted to it.

BIG POWER RIVALRY

In sum, the ADMM Plus fiasco provides two important lessons for ASEAN.

First, ASEAN needs to guide the ADMM Plus back to the “basics” and to its original raison d’etre. The ADMM Plus was conceptualised as “a platform for ASEAN and its eight Dialogue Partners to strengthen security and defence cooperation for peace, stability and development in the region”. It has identified five areas of practical cooperation, namely maritime security, counter-terrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster management, peacekeeping operations and military medicine.

It is conceivable that ADMM Plus might lose its relevance if it strays from these agreed areas of practical cooperation. At its core, the ADMM Plus is not the platform to debate regional politics and any attempts to do so will undermine the support and utility of the process.

Second, ASEAN should stay vigilant against attempts by the major powers to transpose their rivalries in ASEAN-led processes. If anything, the 3rd ADMM Plus meeting clearly showed the damaging effect of major power rivalries. The net result of China and the US locking horns is the failure to issue the joint declaration. How will this fallout affect the strategic trust between the major powers and their working relations within ADMM Plus?

In a twist of irony, all parties can claim victory in the ADMM Plus debacle. China came away happy for successfully keeping the SCS off the joint declaration. The US can claim a moral victory in preventing China from whitewashing the joint declaration. ASEAN can also take comfort that it held its own and maintained a united front.

A debacle that gives rise to celebration is perplexing. Whether these “wins” turn out to be Pyrrhic victories remains to be seen. One thing is for sure — it is not in anyone’s interest for these games of high-stake strategic poker to continue.

The major powers must come to the conclusion that using ASEAN-led processes to live out their rivalry will deprive themselves of an invaluable platform to foster goodwill and trust with ASEAN and between themselves.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Tang Siew Mun is the Head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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