After 50, Asean's greatest threat is itself, not China

After 50, Asean's greatest threat is itself, not China

This painting unveiled Monday at Manila was commissioned for the 50th anniversary of Asean, and depicts the signing of the Asean treaty at Bang Saen in 1967. From left, the ministers of the five founding nations are Philippine foreign secretary Narcio Ramos, foreign ministers Adam Malik of Indonesia and Thanat Khoman of Thailand, Malaysian deputy prime minister Abdul Razak and Singaporean foreign minister S Rajaratnam. (Pool photo)
This painting unveiled Monday at Manila was commissioned for the 50th anniversary of Asean, and depicts the signing of the Asean treaty at Bang Saen in 1967. From left, the ministers of the five founding nations are Philippine foreign secretary Narcio Ramos, foreign ministers Adam Malik of Indonesia and Thanat Khoman of Thailand, Malaysian deputy prime minister Abdul Razak and Singaporean foreign minister S Rajaratnam. (Pool photo)

The toasts to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (Asean) 50th birthday will continue for the rest of 2017. But the clink of champagne glasses cannot hide the fact that any spark of excitement there might have been around Asean less than two years ago -- when the Asean Community was launched -- is fast fizzling out.

As the Asean Community came into being at the end of 2015, sceptics took on a wait-and-see attitude about Asean's new project. But the deflation of those grudging hopes has been fast -- a short year and a half later.

Today, the adjectives often attached to Asean are: adrift, confused, divided and weak.

Former US undersecretary of state Michael Armacost told a conference in Manila last week that Southeast Asia needs to work with others to "forestall further efforts by Beijing to turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake". Former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, another veteran of interactions with Asean, said China was trying to "recreate tributary state relationships" with the region.

Conference after conference on Asean at 50 have lauded its contributions. These are being an anchor for regional peace and stability, and providing neutrality and credibility as a safe space for conversations among leaders -- no less than at the heads of state level -- of countries as diverse as Myanmar under the military before, or North Korea today.

These Asean successes are not to be belittled. Its profile is one that groups like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) or the African Union envy. Asean has been the come-to venue for much of the world, and countries are queuing to be members or dialogue partners.

But is today's Asean the same Asean it has been for much of its 50-year life? Not quite. The last five years have seen Asean and its members come under -- and increasingly fold under -- greater external pressures.

This is the crux of the threat to Asean's centrality. Far from it being about China -- or any other power projecting its political and economic footprint -- it is about Asean itself.

This challenge from within Asean itself is its refusal or inability to fix itself from within so that it is solid enough to stave off divisions caused by the presence or absence of external powers, whether it be China, or the United States.

Its centrality gives Asean far greater political weight in trade, and in political and security issues than any one member state can achieve individually. The crumbling of this core would weaken Asean, perhaps permanently. If Asean is seen to be in China's sphere of influence, it loses its hard-earned perch as a non-threatening discussion space, and its potential to be a middle power.

Going purely on the steam of Asean's past amid an unfamiliar, uncertain regional order may produce an Asean that is fragmented but survives from summit to summit and declaration to declaration.

For instance, the Asean foreign ministers' communiqué issued in August 5 in Manila has a lot of words, but says little. It is an increasingly thick document of up to 46 pages drafted with the aim of accommodating everyone instead of negotiating until a consensus emerges.

The fact that it took note of the concerns of "some ministers", instead of owning it as a common sentiment, reveals not only a failure of consensus but an apparent propensity to fail to support one's fellow members. Vietnam pushed for stronger language against China's actions, but the communiqué's wording shows that Asean countries in effect hung Vietnam out to hang dry instead of building coalitions around a potential leader.

Is Vietnam, which defeated the US in the Vietnam War and has for centuries dealt with China, including fighting a naval battle over the Paracels, now stepping up since the Philippines, which used to play that role, has become friends with China?

The usually low-key Asean secretary-general Le Luong Minh, who is from Vietnam, said in Manila that a "substantive and effective" code of conduct for South China Sea claimants has to be a legally binding one.

Filipino officials have only said they "prefer" that the code, talks on which are to start within 2017, is legally binding. Mr Minh put it straight: "How can it be [effective], without you know, being legally binding? Even you know the fact that the DoC [Declaration of the Conduct of Parties of 2002], which does not have that character, has not been able to prevent or manage the kind of incidents that have further escalated tension and complicated the dispute in the South China Sea."

In sum, Asean needs to act with greater self-respect. Asserting itself versus China's economic and political weight would not be an anti-China move as much as a pro-Asean one.

China is still defining what kind of power it will be. The July 2016 arbitral ruling in The Hague was the first time China had been brought to face international law. Since then, it has smartly cited the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi did the same at the Manila meetings.

That China will push the envelope is expected as it pursues its foreign policy -- but Asean's response to this falls squarely on its member states' shoulders.

What have China's interactions with Asean been like? As it pushed its investments to Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia, it cemented its now-irreversible air and naval presence in, and fishing and natural-resource access, to swaths of the South China Sea.

Over the last five years, it has rapped Asean's knuckles when it uses language that mentions China's behaviour. To this day, the failure by Asean foreign ministers to issue a joint communiqué in 2012 because then-Asean chair Cambodia blocked references that would upset Beijing, is called a debacle.

At the 2016 Asean meetings in Laos, the outcome documents expressed serious concern about the South China Sea. In June that year, China succeeded in getting Asean to retract a foreign ministers' statement restating the "serious concerns" at a special meeting in Kunming.

In September 2016 at the Non-Aligned Movement summit, China got host Venezuela to block a reference to the South China Sea in its final document, one that had been submitted by Asean chair Laos as a summary about the regional situation.

After China's chastising of Singapore -- coordinator of Asean-China ties in 2016 -- for its South China Sea stance, Hong Kong impounded Singapore's armoured personnel carriers that were being shipped from Taiwan after training drills.

China-Singapore ties are said to be back on even keel, but Beijing's message was clear. How affluent Singapore manages the Asean chairmanship next year will require deft diplomacy -- after recent Asean chairs Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines turned chummy with China.

Amid Asean's "grand commemoration" of its 50th year, it may prefer to forget how it has been unable to agree even on the idea of putting the Asean logo on its nationals' passports.

Asean badly needs to get comfortable with discussing hard, divisive issues, including security, says Pou Sothirak of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. "But until now, Asean is dancing the lamvong," he said, referring to the "circle dance" native to mainland Southeast Asian countries. "You know, it has no beginning and no end."

Johanna Son, who has followed Southeast Asian affairs for over two decades, is the Bangkok-based editor and founder of the Reporting ASEAN media programme.

Johanna Son

Filipina journalist

Johanna Son, based in Bangkok, is a Filipina journalist and editor who covers issues relating to Asia and Asean. She has been based in Thailand for 16 years.

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