Monday, May 12, 2014

ASEAN: its heyday, its rah-rah days, and whatever will be, will be...

The ASEAN leaders survived yet another pointless summit, putting on a brave front. No wonder both ST and TODAY came out with nearly the same page one headlines:

Summit host Myanmar, no longer the "black sheep" of the bloc, made sure a leaders' joint statement was duly issued yesterday (May 11), one with a nice sounding name -- The Naypyidaw Declaration:

It became meaningless as soon as the ink dried. But the ASEAN leaders went home happy (except perhaps the Philippine and Vietnamese leaders).

Earlier, before the leaders met, Singapore's own foreign minister had waxed lyrical on the necessity for ASEAN the bloc having to stay neutral from individual ASEAN members' spats over the multi-party Spratlys issue and the three-party spat over the Paracels. China -- and lest it be forgotten, Taiwan too -- are protagonists in both disputed areas:

I don't know what the ASEAN leaders and foreign ministers tell each other behind closed doors. But I can think of only two member countries (I may be wrong, though) that have openly espoused and emphasised the "ASEAN must stay united by staying neutral" line: Singapore and Indonesia, both non-claimants in the two South China Sea disputes. This position on the South China Sea (ie, ASEAN does not necessarily insist that it has to stay neutral on other issues) is the official ASEAN line so no member is expected to deviate from it. Cambodia (also a non-claimant but a heavy recipient of Chinese aid) came close to bolting through the barn door in 2012 when, as the summit host, it arrogated its chairmanship prerogative and failed to cobble a summit joint statement.

Incidentally, an argument can be made that the "ASEAN must stay neutral" line risks acquiescing in China's position that the South China Sea disputes are the concerns of only the disputants, ie, "butt out if you are not a claimant!" At the same time, this ASEAN position risks affected member states asking: "Just what is ASEAN solidarity all about?" It is a classic case of "do and you are damned, don't and you are damned".

I suspect there are still senior journalists who are clueless about this strange animal called ASEAN. The misinformation in this summary below for an ST story (May 12) should have been fixed:

ASEAN is not a security alliance! To become one, a treaty among all the 10 members will have to be signed. Such a treaty will need to be modelled on NATO, ie, an attack on one member is an attack on all treaty members. ASEAN may aspire to become a security community but this is not the same as a security alliance.

To tell the story of ASEAN in a nutshell, these pointers may be helpful:
* ASEAN began life in 1967 during the Cold War as a grouping of non-communist countries that were fearful of the regional communist threat. The conundrum starts from this birth: it was never openly anti-communist but Thailand and the Philippines were US treaty allies while Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei had close military ties with Britain.
* As British power faded, the US' military presence was expanded in the region although the fall of South Vietnam was a setback.
* Diplomatically, ASEAN was at its suavest. After the US established diplomatic relations with China, the ASEAN members -- one by one -- did likewise. The common "enemies" were the USSR and a unified Vietnam. Even then, ASEAN had the luxury of dabbling in a queer but largely dismissed concept, the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN).
* Economically, ASEAN members decided on a very long road map to closer economic ties as intra-ASEAN trade was then minimal.
* The end of the Cold War was a game-changer. Resurgent Filipino nationalism led to the departure of US forces; Singapore hosted US forces "on a rotational basis"; the South China Sea issues began to become more salient. There were clashes at sea.
* A decision, for better or for worse, was made to expand ASEAN to include all of Southeast Asia.
* A flurry of ASEAN initiatives was rolled out: AFTA, the ARF, ASEM, annual leaders' summits, expanded dialogue partners, etc, etc. The tagline was "ASEAN in the driver's seat".
* But the writing was on the wall: the big powers humoured ASEAN at first but, over time, they played to their own music score.
* So, today, ASEAN as a bloc is in danger of becoming adrift. Its annual summit declarations are beginning to sound that warning. The rah-rah days may be over.

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