Asean fails unity test
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Asean fails unity test

The ominous signs were looming. Supporters hoped that this time it would be different. But in the end, the sceptics were right. Asean would not, could not, come up with a unified position on the recent ruling against China by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the South China Sea.

After the court's ruling on July 12, the immediate response from the Philippines, which had filed the case against China, was predictable. So too were the responses of Beijing, Tokyo and Washington.

Predictably, so was Asean's silence on the ruling. Asean's process of consultation takes time. To be fair, there was an effort to get a statement released, but consensus could not be achieved because Cambodia was primarily opposed to the draft. In the end, members issued their own statements on the ruling. The respective statements touched on various Asean principles, namely, calls for self-restraint, respect for international rule of law and non-militarisation of the region. But the bottom line is there was no Asean statement.

This raised fears of a déjà vu occurring in Vientiane this year. In 2012, as Asean chair, Cambodia effectively blocked the release of the joint communiqué because a consensus could not be reached despite efforts by Indonesia to broker a compromise.

Questions remained whether Laos, the current Asean chair, which like Cambodia has close ties with China, would be able to handle the pressure and forge a consensus.

Efforts were made to give senior officials sufficient time to hammer out their respective positions, to negotiate the wording and nuances that go with drafting a statement before it reaches the foreign ministers.

One could argue that Vientiane performed better than Phnom Penh in the sense that a communiqué was issued and the South China Sea was mentioned.

But Asean only managed to agree in general terms its commitment to solving regional disputes through "legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea". Asean Secretary-General Le Luong Minh described the communiqué as a victory "in a sense".

But the bottom line was there was no specific mention of the ruling against China by the PCA. Asean was not able to demonstrate its solidarity in dealing with China on this issue.

It is disappointing that Asean was not able to issue a statement calling for full implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea which was signed 14 years ago between China and Asean.

The events in Vientiane will continue to raise doubts as to whether a conclusion or agreement can ever be reached with regards to a code of conduct in the South China Sea. For more than a decade, the grouping has yet to turn the principles in the declaration of conduct (DOC) in the South China Sea into the more substantial code of conduct (COC).

Yes, one could argue that part of the blame rests with China's position. Beijing has refused to recognise the legitimacy of the PAC right from the start. It has stood firm on its assertion that the territorial dispute can only be resolved bilaterally.

China's close ties with Laos and Cambodia are also factors in the disappointing final outcome in Vientiane. But in the end Asean failed the test of coming up with a firm, united stance on the issue.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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