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ASEAN Political-Security Community ‘still a distant goal’

Chinese-made structures occupying the Johnson Reef at the Spratly Islands at South China Sea in 2013. Manila has protested against Beijing’s reclamation of land on the disputed reef. Photo: Department of Foreign Affairs, Philippines

Chinese-made structures occupying the Johnson Reef at the Spratly Islands at South China Sea in 2013. Manila has protested against Beijing’s reclamation of land on the disputed reef. Photo: Department of Foreign Affairs, Philippines

SINGAPORE — The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plans to form a Political-Security Community by the end of this year to coordinate regional security policies, but those efforts are hampered by rising tensions in the South China Sea and the bloc’s inability to speak with one voice on the issue.

Analysts and officials whom TODAY spoke to said differing views among ASEAN members on the Philippines’ unilateral decision to seek international arbitration of its territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea show the regional bloc still has some way to go before it can agree on issues such as preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution.

“ASEAN has not yet achieved common perception among its 10 members that they are in fact a political-security community. ASEAN treats the Philippines as an orphan on South China Sea issues,” said Emeritus Professor Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy.

“There is still a long way to go before we get to an ASEAN Political-Security Community,” said Mr Ong Keng Yong, executive deputy chairman of Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and former ASEAN Secretary-General in an interview with TODAY this week.




ASEAN agreed on a Political-Security Community Blueprint in 2009, which consists of a series of measures grouped under three main aspirations to be attained by end-2015. These are: Forming a rules-based community; becoming a cohesive, peaceful, stable and resilient region; and becoming a dynamic and outward-looking region within an increasingly integrated world. Unlike the ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint, the ASEAN Political-Security Blueprint does not contain any implementation schedule or scorecard.

“According to the ASEAN Secretariat, over 90 per cent of measures in the ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint have been implemented. But we don’t yet know — or have measured to a fuller extent — the actual impact of these measures,” said Ms Moe Thuzar, a lead researcher in the ASEAN Studies Centre in Singapore.

In fact, serious questions have been raised over the effectiveness of the blueprint in managing maritime security, especially since it is a general document without quantifiable targets.




Managing overlapping claims in the South China Sea by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam will be a major test for ASEAN. China itself has claimed a large part of the sea in a move that could affect freedom of navigation in waters through which up to 50 per cent of global oil tanker shipments pass.

The bloc and China concluded a non-binding declaration on the conduct of parties in the disputed waters in 2002, but it took the bloc another eight years to agree on implementing guidelines for the declaration. In 2012, ASEAN for the first time failed to issue a joint communique at the foreign ministers’ level as the different members failed to reach a common position on the maritime dispute involving the South China Sea.

While ASEAN and China agreed in 2013 to begin negotiations for a legally binding code of conduct that will govern how parties resolve the issue, there has been little progress in talks. China has consistently insisted on settling disputes with ASEAN countries on a bilateral basis without involving external parties or third countries, and ASEAN countries remain wary of their giant neighbour.

“ASEAN has not been effective on the South China Sea issue. It is easily lulled into complacency, understandably so as the diversity within the grouping means that differing stakes have to be reconciled before all can be brought on board,” added Professor Aileen Baviera of the Asian Center in Manila.




After China took control of a disputed shoal following a naval stand-off with the Philippines near its coastline, the Philippines last year challenged China’s claim to much of the South China Sea at a tribunal operating under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Manila said then that it had exhausted political and diplomatic avenues to resolve the case, but some described the move as a break from ASEAN’s approach of carrying out consultations with China as a bloc.




Mr Ong at RSIS said that while the Philippines had the right to seek arbitration, its “pushing the issue to the brink” has polarised positions within ASEAN. “ASEAN’s way of managing disputes through consultations meant that we could control the situation and ensure that things do not flare up. But now that it has been brought to an independent mechanism, the options have been limited,” he said.

The Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose told TODAY in an interview last week that Manila has always held the rule of law in high regard.

“Manila’s approach of international arbitration is in line with ASEAN’s preferred settlement of disputes in a peaceful manner ... We hope to get ASEAN’s support for our position and it is important for ASEAN to remain united so that there will be less provocative actions by China,” said Mr Jose, as he outlined Manila’s position on seeking arbitration.

During this week’s ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ retreat in Kota Kinabalu, the Filipino Foreign Secretary urged fellow South-east Asian nations to demand that China immediately stop its land reclamation in contested South China Sea reefs, warning that the 10-nation bloc’s credibility may be undermined if it remains silent on the issue.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told ASEAN ministers that China’s massive reclamation, which appears “to be near completion as portrayed by available photos”, could threaten freedom of navigation and the region’s biodiversity.

Mr Rosario added that “the massive reclamation issue (by China) presents a strategic policy dilemma for ASEAN ... Our inaction on this would undermine the principle of centrality, since we are unable to address in a unified and collective way such a critical issue in our own backyard.”




Despite the current stand-off, it may be too early to dismiss ASEAN’s political integration efforts. Since the group’s formation in 1967, it has enjoyed reasonable success in promoting regional stability and fostering a conducive environment for dialogue and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Many people do not give ASEAN enough credit. Ultimately, it was born out of a peace pact. And this is how ASEAN should be judged,” said Mr Jayant Menon, lead economist at Asian Development Bank.


This story was produced under the Reporting ASEAN: 2015 and Beyond series of IPS Asia-Pacific in cooperation with Probe Media Foundation. This programme is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the ASEAN Foundation and the Japan-ASEAN Solidarity Fund. Copyright of MediaCorp Press Ltd."

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