Asean’s Weak Haiyan Response

Lê Lương Minh, the secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, arrived in the Philippines today to inspect the damage from Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, which made landfall on Nov. 8 – two full weeks after the storm smashed into the center of the country and killed more than 5,000 people.

There are 381,022 persons in refugee camps. Another 3.95 million people were displaced from their homes but are staying with friends or relatives at last count, according to the Philippine government. Another 1,600 remain missing.

The delay of the secretary general to arrive exemplifies the inability of the 46-year-old, 10-member association to get its act together. Although almost any action requires consensus of all 10 members, a two-week delay in merely inspecting the monstrous damage to a prominent member state is an example of its weakness and disorganization, raising larger questions about regional cooperation and security.

Asean established its Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management in the aftermath of the devastation caused when Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2010, killing 138,000 people and doing US$10 billion in damage. The center issued press releases saying it was coordinating aid pledges on Haiyan by neighboring countries, but it has little crisis management capability of its own. Haiyan proved Asean itself is a long way from being able to respond in anything but a peripheral way to a major disaster.

Disasters “reveal the capacities of actors to respond effectively. In the case of Typhoon Haiyan, it is clear that the region's most prominent organization possesses no such resilience,” wrote Jeffrey Wright, a research associate in International Institutions and Global Governance, on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday. Asean, he said, “lacks the political will and resources to fulfill its charter obligations.”

In the storm’s aftermath, he added, Asean “lies in the shadows altogether, wielding neither the power nor funds to play a substantial part in the humanitarian response.”

It is hard to see how it could. With a staff of 70 and a paltry budget of only US$16 million, the association, headquartered in Jakarta, has little scope for action. So far, the organization has contributed US$500,000 although individual Asean members have been far more generous. Le Luong Minh turned over relief kits containing blankets and hygiene materials.

The association’s leaders say are working to try to strengthen it. They met on Oct. 9 in Brunei to establish a high-level task force to try to identify ways to strengthen the Secretariat and other key Asean organs. But the lack of synergy between the 10 nations, from those as advanced as Singapore to those as backward as Laos and Myanmar, and with vastly different political systems, guarantees the inability to act in concert.

“As some of the association’s governance principles are obsolete and need an urgent update, [the task force formation] is a timely and welcome decision,” according to Giovanni Capannelli, principal economist and special adviser to the dean of the Asian Development Institute in Tokyo. “Asean leaders must be bold enough to make substantial progress in their institutional set-up, from introducing qualified-majority systems, to increasing the delegation of power from national to regional agencies, and moving away from the principle of equal budget contribution.”

Indeed. The inability to respond to disaster is one thing. The organization has been handcuffed even in dealing with intra-Asean disputes, such as the tension between Thailand and Cambodia, where shooting has broken out repeatedly over the Preah Vihear Temple, which straddles the border between the two countries. It finally fell to the International Court of Justice to adjudicate the dispute, unanimously confirming Phnom Penh's sovereignty over the entire disputed promontory.

The lack of ability to coordinate action against China’s ambition to take over virtually the entire South China Sea through its aggressive “nine-dashed line” border claim, is quite another. At issue are the significant natural resources in the sea, which China aspires to make its lake. Four of the 10 Asean states – the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam – view China’s claim as an Asean issue. China, however, has no intention of internationalizing the issue.

In July of 2012, just how flawed this security arrangement is was made clear at the Asean Foreign Ministers meeting in Phnom Penh, when Cambodia, which hosted the meeting, for the first time in the organization’s history vetoed the issuance of a communique because it would have included a statement on the South China Sea issue. Phnom Penh was acting on behalf of its biggest trading partner, China, which also provides considerable aid.

“Asean was invented during, and in response to, the Cold War, and its expansion followed the Cold War's conclusion,” wrote Damien Kingsbury, who holds a personal chair in the School of International and Political Studies at Deakin University. “Times have since changed, with China assuming a major place on the global economic and, increasingly, strategic stage. Having previously reflected a changing external environment, it may be that ASEAN is again being shaped by external changes.”

Given China’s growing economic and political strength, and its belligerence in the Southeast Asian region where the US acts as a guarantor of the sea lanes and military protector of the Asean states, the strategic environment is evolving in ways that the 10 member nations appear ill equipped to handle.

Asean’s philosophy of seeking consensus on all issues is in this case a handcuff with no keys. It needs to move towards some form of majority rule and provide the secretariat with additional resources, or it risks drifting into obscurity despite its deadline of forming an economic community by the end of 2015. It needs to get its act together and soon.