Asean in transition

Asean is in a state of flux with the transfer of the chair from Cambodia to Brunei in late November and the handover of the secretary-general post to Le Luong Minh of Vietnam, who was formally sworn in last week. Mr Minh is replacing Surin Pitsuwan of Thailand.

Among the many issues commanding the attention of Mr Minh and the regional body as a whole are the launching of the Asean Economic Community in 2015 and steering Asean toward a unified stance on disputes over territories in the South China Sea. China claims most of the sea, including a vital shipping lane and resource-rich areas. The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei have overlapping claims in the area, as does Taiwan.

To his credit, the incoming secretary-general has already made it clear he intends to make resolving the disputes a priority. In Jakarta on Wednesday, he indicated Asean is anxious to bring a resolution to this highly contentious matter and will be pressing China for talks.

Besides pitting some member nations against China, in particular Vietnam and the Philippines, the South China Sea disputes have also divided the grouping. The failure to come to a consensus at the Asean Summit in Phnom Penh last July was widely put down to obstruction on the part of Cambodia at the behest of China, which is investing heavily in the country.

With Brunei as the chair it seems less likely that China could exert such influence, particularly since it also has a relatively minor dispute over a small region in the Spratly region adjacent to its coastline. However, it should be noted that Brunei also has has considerable economic ties to China, especially in its vital oil and gas sector.

There are two sides to every story, but it's hard to deny that China's far-reaching claims seem to fly in the face of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea concerning the rights of coastal states to establish sovereignty over adjacent waters. There are also worries that Washington is putting undue pressure on Asean to reject China's extensive maritime claims, which might at some point conflict with the freedom of movement the US navy now enjoys in the South China Sea.

In remarks last week Mr Surin indirectly addressed Asean's awkward position with regard to the superpowers' regional power struggle and the need for Asean to strike an independent course. ''The challenge for Asean is to forge a new strategic equilibrium to balance the superpowers in the region,'' said Mr Surin. ''There is no central [body] or organisation besides Asean capable of forging unity and equilibrium in the region. The Asean forum is the most important for all sides [in the region].''

To develop into the kind of organisation Mr Surin envisions it will be necessary to not only reach a unified position on the South China Sea territorial question, but also to move past the traditional policy of non-interference in the affairs of member states _ where appropriate. One such case concerns the ethnic conflicts inside Myanmar. Despite the best wishes of Asean and the world for Myanmar to make a smooth transition to an open and inclusive society, that's clearly not happening. Pressure from Asean should be applied on Nay Pyi Taw to make a peace settlement with armed ethnic soldiers in Kachin state, where fighting has intensified since December.

Asean should also bring whatever influence it has on Myanmar to find a solution to the ethnic violence in Rakhine state. Asean unity and resources can also provide assistance to the mass migration of refugees, hundreds of whom have ended up on Thai shores, as a result of violence directed at Rohingya in Rakhine state. In one of his last statements as chief of Asean in November, Mr Surin called on the group's members to extend humanitarian assistance to Myanmar's Rohingya.

''If all of us fail, that will create an impression that we don't care,'' he said, adding that failure to address the problem could lead to ''extremism and radicalisation''.

Fortunately, under the present Thai government it is doubtful that the upcoming ruling from the International Court of Justice on the Preah Vihear temple dispute between Thailand and Cambodia will require Asean's intervention,even if the verdict is unfavourable to Thailand, as many expect it will be.