Asean Front and Center

For much of its 45-year history, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been an alliance whose name was virtually synonymous with boredom. Guys in suits used the diplomatic cover of “consensus” to keep from asking one another hard questions about human rights, territorial disputes or other potentially contentious issues. Tough dialogue was not on the table, platitudes abounded.

Now, with a new and more complicated world approaching from outside, that must change.

The previous atmosphere was to be expected given the opaque nature of government in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. With the Indochina wars still raging in 1967 and various Communist armies nearing victory in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, Asean began as an alliance of right-wing states all of whom were regarded as part of a broad US-backed anti-communist front against encroaching socialist movements. The five original members of Asean – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand  were virtually all authoritarian states. The sole democrat, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, would in few short years impose a dictatorship on his own country.

In the ensuing years, of course, the bloc has grown and new members have been added. There are now three fairly open democracies – Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. Governments range from the legalistic authoritarianism of Singapore and Malaysia to the one-party states of Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and increasingly Cambodia. But much has been accomplished over these four and a half decades Territorial tensions between Malaysia and Indonesia and Malaysia and the Philippines have largely been laid to rest. Trade and investment within the bloc have grown markedly and great steps have been taken toward a truly unified economic community, which is to be in place by 2015.

But until fairly recently, outsiders – and by that I mean almost anyone who isn’t a diplomat, a regional businessman or an employee of Asean itself – have tended to view the body as one big talking shop. The addition of the Asean plus 3 and Asian plus 6 frameworks for various summits has made Asean a cool place for bigger powers like Japan, China and the US to sit down for serious chats on numerous trade and security issues. But in terms of the realpolitik of big power diplomacy, Asean has been fairly immune – a fact that has worked in favor of building consensus and taking the tiniest incremental steps in meeting after meeting to reach various agreements.

Until now.

The current impasse over the South China Sea and the inability of Asean to draw up a code of conduct on resolving the dispute has put the alliance front and center of one of the most important big power standoffs in the world. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in the midst of a swing around Asia this week and during her stop in Indonesia she called on Asean to demonstrate a “show of unity“ in seeking a settlement with China, which has declared that virtually the entire South China Sea is Chinese territory. Clinton got no comfort for Washington’s position during a visit to Beijing this week, where the official press sharply criticized the US for interfering in the region and Beijing stuck to its position that it would only negotiate one-on-one with the individual claimants to parts of the Sea, while at the same time asserting its right to use Naval patrols and garrisons to mark its territory.

Potentially rich in oil and gas resources, various sand spits and islets in the Sea are claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia. In July, Asean foreign ministers meeting in Phnom Penh could not reach a consensus on a communiqué because of the issue for the first time in the body’s history. Some members, chiefly the Philippines and Vietnam, side the with the US. Others, principally the current chair Cambodia, are clearly carrying Beijing’s water, presumably in exchange for billions of dollars in Chinese aid and investment. If the issue is not resolved before the annual leader’s summit in November, all work toward integration and other issues could grind to a halt. The alliance’s fragile unity is under serious assault.

Senior diplomats accredited to Asean in Jakarta see this as the most significant threat Asean has yet faced and a real threat to regional unity. The good thing is that it is also sure sign that Asean is no longer a club of insignificant nations whose leaders cross hands and grin at the camera once a year before disappearing into mind-numbing meetings.

Asean is actually important and now at the center of serious major power politics. The region has to get its diplomatic act together in a hurry if it is going to cope with Washington’s aggressive reassertion of influence in the region – exemplified by military power projection in Australia, the Philippines and even Vietnam – and China’s steady and increasingly aggressive rise. The worry for observers of Asean is that the body lacks the kind of diplomatic savvy to negotiate a way forward.

That is why it has fallen on Indonesia to take the lead  as it has done – to try and repair the damage done by the July face-off between Cambodia on one side and Vietnam and the Philippines on the other. Most observers agree that Indonesia has by far the most capable foreign ministry personnel in Asean and a long tradition of leadership that dates back to the 1955 founding of the non-aligned movement in Bandung.

“Asean really does matter,” a senior Western diplomat said this week. “We have been trying to get people to take notice of that for years but they used to just laugh it off. Now that there is a real issue and the world is watching, I certainly hope they can get it done,” he said.

“It is up to Indonesia. No other [Asean] country has the skills or the resources.”

(A Lin Neumann is one of the founders of Asia Sentinel. A version of this appeared in the Jakarta Globe.)