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Friday, August 17, 2012

ASEAN in crisis : Divided we stagger

Can Indonesia heal the deepening rifts in South-East Asia?

FOR decades the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has led a largely blameless existence, untroubled by the glare of publicity as it gently sought to bring coherence to a region of enormous political and economic differences. Not for ASEAN the highs and calamitous lows of, for example, the European Union. All that has now suddenly changed. On its 45th birthday newspapers and blogs are at last paying ASEAN plenty of attention, though marked more by despair than praise. Some even question its very survival.

The cause of the furore is the widening division in the ten-member grouping over China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea. The division was laid bare publicly at a meeting last month of ASEAN foreign ministers in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. For the first time in its history ASEAN failed to issue a joint communiqué. Its members could not agree on what to say about China. Broadly, those members with claims in the South China Sea themselves—Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, supported by Singapore and Thailand—want ASEAN to register serious concerns over what they see as China’s belligerent actions to enforce its claims in the waters of the South China Sea and over the Spratly, Paracel and other islands and atolls. However, non-claimants, mainly Cambodia supported by Laos and perhaps Myanmar, are loth to alienate China. They go along with China’s insistence on dealing with the issue with each country in turn. This year Cambodia holds the rotating chair of ASEAN.

Right after the Phnom Penh fiasco, Indonesia’s foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, in a vigorous exercise in diplomacy, tried hard to paper over the cracks. Since then, however, there has been no let-up in the unASEAN-like public rowing. Last week the Philippine government sent the Cambodian ambassador packing. He had accused the Philippines and Vietnam of playing “dirty politics” in their push to put the South China Sea on ASEAN’s agenda. The regional press is full of articles and letters lambasting Cambodia’s stance.
ASEAN members had hoped to get through this crisis by establishing a “code of conduct” for the South China Sea, yet China refuses to discuss this idea until, it says, “conditions are ripe”. Meanwhile, a mood of gloom pervades preparations for the next full ASEAN summit, due in November. This time round, the countries should be able to agree on a common position for public consumption, avoiding another unseemly row. But that still leaves plenty of scope for private grief.

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