Sunday July 31, 2011
Behind The Headlines
By BUNN NAGARA
Grouping continues to invite others to its feast, even if it may have too much on its plate.
ASEAN leaders need more self-esteem without constantly craving reassurance from others, if they are to live up to the promise of the regional organisation.
After all, self-reliance is supposed to be a buzzword for Asean. And like all the best regional organisations, it was conceived in hope – hope that it would help bring about better times for all.
Yet Asean has long treasured its international image, where to be ignored or deemed irrelevant by others seems worse than being trumped. It particularly seems to value approval by past colonial powers.
Thus the sense of triumphalism during the week that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had mentioned Asean in deliberating over the Preah Vihear temple dispute between Cambodia and Thailand.
The dispute involves two Asean countries after all, so the court’s mention of Asean is not exactly extraordinary. Actually, if the ICJ has indeed made Asean a factor in any impending dispute settlement, there might be reason for concern.
First, Asean will be put on notice that it needs to do all it can to solve the problem. But there is little assurance that Asean can deliver.
This means, second, that Asean’s likely failure to satisfy will reflect badly on it and all that it represents. Questions about Asean’s purpose, effectiveness and relevance may resurface.
There is no doubt that Asean wants the dispute settled, and anything it can do about it will be welcomed. The problem is that Asean’s dispute-settling mechanism is still limited, if not inadequate, and certainly not as well equipped as a dedicated institution like the ICJ.
Cambodia and Thailand responded positively to the ICJ order to withdraw troops from the disputed temple area. As both countries may feel a sense of entitlement in Asean, however, it is doubtful if they would have acted similarly if a request for that came from the Asean Secretariat.
With Cambodia and Thailand jointly forming a fifth of the Asean membership, there is also the conflict of interest factor. Besides, there is no shortage of issues that Asean has to address.
Compared with the range of challenges confronting Asean, the strip of border territory around Preah Vihear is a trifling matter. The fact that both countries have allowed it to fester this far shows how far Asean collectively still has to go.
Naval manoeuvres in the South China Sea continue to be unsettling for some. Even if they are largely seen as initiated by China, some regional responses have not always helped.
Vietnam is among some half-dozen claimaints to disputed maritime territory in the area. But it has got ahead of itself, and of Asean preparedness, in meeting a perceived challenge.
Even the United States has been made uneasy with the tenor in the high seas. The Philippines, another claimant, is not far behind in lacing nationalism with bravado.
President Benigno Aquino III is prodding the rest of Asean to be firm with China, while seeking to add maritime purchases to the Philippine Navy. However, China will know that these are merely postures for home consumption by one of Asean’s weakest naval powers.
But whether or not Beijing will soon launch its first aircraft carrier, neither the United States nor anyone else will want to make waves about it. Just as Asean does not want to have to choose between the United States and China, the United States also does not want to have to choose between Asean and China.
Instead of vying to propose peaceful solutions, claimants over disputed maritime territory are competing to strike combative postures. If that continues, all will be the poorer for it.
Another issue for Asean to consider is the still-tentative prospect of North Korea’s controversial nuclear weapons programme.
Although the issue strictly lies outside South-East Asia, it is very much at the centre of Asean’s larger East Asia perspective. It is also something of an obstacle for the Asean Regional Forum.
Several other countries – China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States – comprise the six-party formula with North Korea to resolve the issue, but the formula has been drifting into oblivion. It is now supposed to be back, but in a convoluted fashion with North-South dialogue first, then US-Pyongyang talks, and only then resumption of six-party talks.
Asean countries like Malaysia had in the past hosted North-South talks, and Asean had also served as impetus and catalyst for broader progress on the Korean peninsula. But distant as a six-party solution is for now, the other five countries are not expecting much, if any, contribution from Asean this time.
One issue that Asean cannot duck is Myanmar’s intention to chair the Asean Standing Committee in 2014. When it was its turn to chair Asean before, Myanmar consented to pass over the privilege because of its political “problems” at home.
But now democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest and there has been an election. The military junta has also retreated behind a semblance of civilian rule, although widespread disquiet over the recent election remains.
Naypyidaw is claiming “mission accomplished” and is about to collect on its Asean chairmanship. Suddenly, a very subjective judgment on its political reforms has to decide on the objective prospect of its Asean chair.
Not so very long ago, Asean was embarrassed for having Myanmar as a member. Now it has to cope somehow with the challenge of Myanmar’s likely chairmanship.
The Philippines, Singapore and Thailand are most agitated over that prospect. But even if they are joined by another six Asean members, it is unlikely things will get any easier for Asean.
All these issues are set to be a liability for Asean’s image if not also its substance. They challenge Asean to perform, deliver and otherwise succeed, stretching its capacities as well as its credibility.