South China Sea: Asean's exit strategies
Asean must find a new bottle to put the Genie back.Otherwise, the tension in this rich maritime region will increase further leading to confrontation - a lose-lose situation the region cannot afford to have. For the past three weeks, Asean has been kept in a suspensing wire - swirling around showing its ugly underbelly. To manage the crisis, all concerned parties must commit to the highest political will. Some necessary steps…
First of all, the Asean chair must continue its effort to issue the abortive joint communique as soon as possible because many important decisions are being held up. For instance, the name of next Asean secretary general, Le Luong Minh, must be submitted for a formal approval from the Asean leaders in mid-November. Failure to do so, Asean could face a new leadership crisis. The problematic paragraph on the South China Sea obviously needs to be refined further in the language that is acceptable to all Asean members. In this case, the Asean chair, Vietnam and the Philippines must meet face to face and refresh their wordings to ensure a consensus text. The statement on six-principle on the South China Sea worked out by Indonesia was useful as well. It could be collaborated or appendixes to the main document.
The Asean foreign ministers must return to their notes again so that the important deliberations could be reflected in black and white. Asean interest must come first. This was not the first time Asean got stuck with such the game of wordsmiths. In the past decades, Asean has successfully played and overcome the wordings regarding conflicts between the Palestine and Israel in the Middle East, India and Pakistan over the Khashmire problem, North Korea and South Korea regarding the Korean Peninsula and finally the last year conflict between Thailand and Cambodia over an Hindu Temple. Whatever Asean decides on the final statement, major powers would accept it and make necessary adjustments on their positions according.
Secondly, the non claimant Asean members must be more pro-active. At this moment, Indonesia stands out as the only member capable of mediating intra-Asean quarrels, thanked to Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa's initiative and shuttle diplomacy. Under the Suharto government, it would be difficult for Indonesia to perform such task. His predecessors such as Prof Mochtar Kusumaadja and later on, Ali Alatas, Hassan Wirayuda - albeit their seniority and diplomatic skills - were unable to take advantage of such a competitive and stressful condition of today. As the grouping's most populous member, Inevitably, Indonesia's increased Asean profile and intellectual leadership would influence the future's body politics.
Thailand and Singapore used to be in the similar positions, taking active roles. However, they are coping with pressing domestic issues. Thailand, as the coordinating country for Asean-China relations, needs to show to the Asean colleagues that Bangkok can use diplomacy to forge Asean consensus especially at this critical juncture. At the moment, the function of Thai foreign policy has been shaped and twisted to save Thaksin Shinawatra's interest instead of the country's as a whole. Singapore has the brain, but not the size as well as the political asset which Indonesia has accumulated since the changeover in 1998.
Thirdly, all claimants need to agree on an ideal model for cooperation knowing full well that the overlapping claims of sovereignty over disputed islands would not be resolved in the foreseeable future. It is imperative that the Asean claimants agreed to follow the successful model of joint Thailand-Malaysia development over disputed areas in the Gulf of Thailand since 1979. The 50-50 split of benefits has already worked in this context. In 2008, based on the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's mantra of advocating joint development first and put aside the sovereignty issue, China and the Philippines agreed to allow their state-owned oil companies to conduct joint seismic survey of their disputed territorial waters. However, Vietnam decided to join the bilateral agreement a few months later with support from the Philippines and China. However, the tripartite arrangement did not produce any desired result which could have been used as a template. If the earlier Philippines-China collaboration proceeded as planned, the overall landscape of present conflict would have been more conducive for peaceful settlement.
Now, without a proper model to emulate, nearly all conflicting parties are asserting their claims, establishing local governments to exercise their sovereignty rights, utilising their long standing historical claims with ancient affidavits such maps and through selective applications of the UN Laws of the Sea. To further compounded the issue, in Vietnam the dispute area is called the East Sea and in the Philippines, the Western Philippines Sea. Deep down, they realized eventually they must soften their positions to end the current stalemate. But it must be done in graceful ways without losing too much face. In Phnom Penh, sad to say though, the chair and key claimants have placed themselves in a corner by virtue of their arguments and nationalistic stands.
Fourthly, Asean should continue to discuss the South China Sea as they have done in the past among themselves and with China, under the Asean plus one formula. Other Asean-lead forums such as the Asean Regional Forum, East Asia Summit and Asean Defence Ministerial Meeting Plus are complimentary to the ministerial one. If Asean decides to duck the issue, fearing China's wraths, it would dent the grouping's creditability further. In the upcoming East Asia Summit, leaders can raise any issue of their concerns, with or without consent of Asean. China and Asean need to look back how they broke through the impasse in April 1995 when their relations were at all time low over disputes in Mischief Reefs.
Since all claimants and dialogue partners have expressed strong support of the ongoing process of competing regional code of conducts (COC) on the South China Sea, they should allow the Asean-China senior officials to work on the COC without hindrance. Beijing's early willingness to negotiate the COC with Asean must be restored. To show goodwill, China also must make clear the guidelines for Asean to use US$500 million of maritime cooperation fund set up last year, especially regarding projects of joint developments and researches.
Finally, to stay and play with the major league, Asean must be prepared. One of the strategies is to increase the capacity of Asean Secretariat. At the moment, it is relatively underfunded and weak, especially on political/security and social/cultural pillars. Asean performs well only over the economic cooperation and integration. Truth be told, while its leaders expressed support to the current effort by Asean Secretary General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan to strengthen Asean Secretariat and other organs, they have never agreed exactly on how the stronger Asean Secretariat would be able to carry out its mandates. Senior officials and the Jakarta-based envoys from Asean speak and act on behalf of their countries. Surin and his staff is not. His tenure is ending in December and Le Luong Minh will take over from January 2013.
Without any clear direction, Asean much vaulted centrality and neutrality could be challenged and subsequently eroded as the dialogue partners are demanding "equal partnership" in all forums beyond their diplomatic pleasantries. The last-minute decision of France, US and UK to postpone the signing of Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone was indicative of the growing interconnectedness between Asean and major powers and the latter's ability to influence Asean process. Only China and Russia stand ready to sign. According to the article 11, item 9 of the Asean Charter, it is succinctly stated that each Asean member "undertakes to respect the exclusive Asean character of the responsibilities of the secretary-general and the staff, and not to seek to influence them in the discharge of the responsibilities." Thanked to Surin's predecessor, Ong Keng Yong, who introduced this clause knowing full well the overall Asean's psyche and backbone. Until now, none of the Asean leaders, who signed the charter, have done that.