In an Asean first, the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last week were unable to issue the usual joint communique at the end of their summit. Irreconcilable differences regarding the South China Sea, with diplomats pointing at Cambodia’s unwillingness to embarrass Beijing, were the reasons for the deadlock.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said in response: “I think it is utterly irresponsible if we cannot come up with a common statement on South China Sea. This is a time when Asean should be seen to be acting as one, when the rest of the region expects Asean to be acting as one, and that’s why it’s extremely disappointing that so far we have not been able to achieve that.”
Marty was right to feel disappointed over Asean’s failure. This summit broke the “taboo” that regardless of the debates and acrimony within the summit, by the end of the day, every country will sit down, shake hands and issue a joint communique that papers over the differences and saves face.
The failure to issue a joint communique this time around can be said to have torn apart the facade of Asean unity. If 10 nations cannot agree on one joint communique that is full of generalities and only mentions that the summit was also discussing the contentious issue of the Scarborough Shoal, then it remains to be seen whether Asean has the political will to push for more drastic (and most likely painful and domestically unpopular) measures that will be needed down the road in forming a stronger union.
While the Southeast Asian nations have high hopes and plans for the future of the organization, hoping that it can help strengthen their ties and develop common interests, not unlike the European Union, the failure shows that there is still has a long way to go. It also raises another issue: when push comes to shove, can Asean members rely on each other?
There might just be a silver lining to this fiasco. The inability to issue joint communiques may be seen as normal for future summits. That way, summits will actually be used to bring up difficult issues and force Asean nations to face the most contentious of issues head-on. Controversial decisions may be made, with some nations agreeing and others objecting — something that under the current facade of harmony is impossible.
The caveat, though, is that all Asean countries must have enough political will to stay together and turn Asean into a binding organization; otherwise, it faces disintegration. Therefore, the Phnom Penh summit should be used for introspection and possibly a great time to think of the future of Asean itself.
China should also take heed. It may have won this round by using its influence to make sure that Asean chair Cambodia kept the issue of the Scarborough Shoal from the final communique. In the long term, however, China could end up losing the war to win the hearts and minds of the Asean nations.
Should China’s actions undermine the unity of Asean, the disgruntled Southeast Asian countries might put the blame on China for wrecking the Asean project with its unwelcome interference. That won’t be good news for China’s good relationships with the majority of Southeast Asian countries and its goals in the region.
Yohanes Sulaiman is a lecturer at the Indonesian Defense University (Unhan).