Posts Tagged ‘south china sea’
The end of the new year is also the end of ASEAN’s Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan’s five year term in his position. In an article for The Diplomat, I took a look at the advice Surin has been offering Southeast Asia before leaving his post.
At the end of this year, ASEAN’s dynamic Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan will officially leave his post after five eventful years. Over the last year or so, as he has been reflecting on his tenure in the position, he has been offering his advice on how the organization can confront the vast array of future challenges that lie before it.
One issue Surin has spoken about is Myanmar’s ongoing transformation. This has been one of the most significant developments during Surin’s tenure, and he has been outspoken about it both as a success story for ASEAN and also as a potential concern. Asked recently what the main highlight was during his time as Secretary-General, he pointed to ASEAN’s important role in the opening up of Myanmar by “bringing the world in and raising the level of comfort of the leadership” to engage with the international community, which began during the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. For Surin, Myanmar “validated” ASEAN’s approach of giving the country time and space rather than the Western path of slapping it with sanctions.
But the Secretary-General has also offered warnings about ethnic violence in Myanmar, particularly the persecution and discrimination against its minority Rohingya Muslims. In October, Surin proposed setting up tripartite talks between ASEAN, the United Nations and Myanmar despite repeated calls by Naypyidaw that it was an internal matter. “Myanmar believes it is their internal matter,” Surin said in Kuala Lumpur, “but your internal matter could be ours the next day if you are not careful”. His comments applied not only to Myanmar, but also to the broader debate about the applicability of ASEAN’s prized “non-interference” in member states’ affairs. He also warned in no uncertain terms that if sectarian violence in Myanmar was not curbed, the country’s persecuted minority Rohingya Muslims “could become radicalized and the entire region could become destabilized”. He repeatedly urged ASEAN members to extend humanitarian assistance to alleviate the situation.
The Secretary-General has also spoken extensively on the South China Sea (SCS) issue, which led to ASEAN’s failure to issue a joint communique in July for the first time in its history. Surin has said that the SCS has the risk of becoming “Asia’s Palestine” if ASEAN and China do not resolve it quickly. He advocated for a two-pronged approach — putting aside contested claims and minimizing the current potential for miscalculation, while also finding ways to jointly share the natural resources located in the waters. On the first count, he has encouraged ASEAN’s attempts to move forward on talks concerning a code of conduct with China and even publicly floated the idea of a SCS hotline with Beijing to contain miscalculation before a regional summit last month. But he has equally and subtly stressed the need for reciprocity from China. At ASEAN’s November meeting, he noted that while ASEAN was committed to finding a resolution to the SCS issue, “it takes two to tango.”
On sharing resources, in a recent interview he cited a potential “joint development area” emerging between ASEAN countries and China where all parties could tap the resource potential in the SCS. “Leave that [contested territorial disputes] for the future, but along the way let’s benefit from the resources,” Surin said, citing the Malaysia-Thailand Joint Development Area in the Gulf of Thailand as a model.
But most of Surin’s comments have arguably focused on ASEAN’s internal challenges. In an interview at Australian National University earlier this year, he said ASEAN’s greatest challenge during the next five years would be trying to integrate as a grouping despite the diversity among member states. If the organization did not get its act together on forging an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by the end of 2015 to narrow the vast economic divide between countries, Surin said it risked “being a two-tiered ASEAN” which would undermine its efforts to play a central role in Asia-Pacific integration. Asked in February what kept him awake at night, he again focused on ASEAN integration, saying he felt it should “go faster” and was worried that member states were seeking “to keep to themselves.”
Besides the issue of economic integration, the Secretary-General has also placed a lot of emphasis on strengthening the power of the ASEAN Secretariat. Indeed, that was the focus of his last major ASEAN briefing delivered last month. Referring partly to a report he had presented to ASEAN last year on the subject, Surin’s suggestions on strengthening ASEAN’s institutional capacity range from addressing how decisions might be made in the absence of consensus, to formalizing regulations and increasing resources in particular fields.
Stressing the importance of this, Surin claimed, “if the secretariat had been given a larger space, more engagement — the impasse in July could have been avoided — not that I did not try but it is the structure that would not allow me to be involved.” As I have pointed our several times before, having a strong Secretariat will be important as ASEAN is chaired by either smaller or less-developed states in the years ahead, such as Brunei in 2013, Myanmar in 2014 and Laos in 2016.
As Surin steps off the stage, his successor, Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Minister Le Luong Minh, will have large shoes to fill at a critical time for ASEAN. The goal of Surin’s tenure, the outgoing Secretary-General says, was to make ASEAN a household name. On this front, he has largely been successful. But now that all eyes are on ASEAN, it will be up to the grouping’s future leaders to preserve its centrality in the region in the wake of daunting internal and external challenges.
This piece was originally published for The Diplomat. You can read it here.
The 7th East Asia Summit (EAS) held last week was notable for a number of reasons, including the launching of a new regional free trade agreement and the introduction of several U.S. proposals on energy and maritime security. But the elephant in the room once again was the South China Sea (SCS) and disagreements among ASEAN countries stoked in part by China.
Just over four months ago, ASEAN failed to issue a joint statement at its foreign minister’s meeting for the first time because host nation, Cambodia, insisted that language on the SCS should not even be mentioned. Many suspected that China had used its economic leverage on Cambodia to ensure ASEAN remained divided on the issue, and a few reports even suggested Cambodian officials had shared drafts of the statement with Chinese interlocutors.
Those who were perturbed by those developments are unlikely find any relief from developments of the past week. This time, at the ASEAN Summit, Cambodia tried to force through the idea that ASEAN leaders had come to a consensus “that they will not internationalize the South China Sea issue from now on”, in the words of Foreign Ministry official Kao Kim Hourn. The trouble is that the language, which was strikingly similar to Chinese mantras, did not reflect what was agreed upon. At least five ASEAN countries objected and Cambodia was eventually forced to remove the controversial language from the final declaration. The Philippines was particularly vexed, with President Benigno Aquino openly rebuking Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario insisting that there was an attempt to translate statements “into a consensus without our consent”.
While Cambodia was attempting to dilute ASEAN’s consensus on the SCS, China was seeking to downplay the issue within the EAS’ multilateral setting. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao repeated the all-too-familiar Chinese assertion that territorial disputes should not be discussed at multilateral events but bilaterally between China and each of the ASEAN claimant states. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang and Chinese envoys also repeatedly attempted to sidestep the issue, saying that it should not be a “stumbling block” in ASEAN-China relations and that the main focus of the EAS should be greater economic cooperation amid the international financial crisis. ASEAN had in fact agreed to formally ask China to start talks on a code of conduct (CoC) on the SCS before the EAS had begun, according to outgoing ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, but Premier Wen played down the need for urgent action on the issue. “On the ASEAN side, we are ready, willing and very much committed, but it takes two to tango”, Pitsuwan said.
Given that tensions over the SCS have dominated two rounds of meetings this year, how can ASEAN ensure that this will not happen again next year? The Philippines, twice bitten and thrice shy, announced after the EAS that it will host a meeting in Manila on December 12 with fellow claimants Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia. The four countries should use this as an opportunity to coordinate strategies on how to best advance their claims to China in a more unified way. One way to do so would be to make their claims explicit by codifying them in domestic legislation and multilateral frameworks in accordance with international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), followed by a process where stakeholders clarify convergences and divergences. Only by being clear about their own claims can ASEAN states prevent China from exploiting divisions and ambiguities that exist within the bloc in future summits or dealings. That will also help facilitate negotiations on the CoC between ASEAN states and China.
Furthermore, ASEAN countries should continue to engage with next year’s ASEAN chair (and SCS claimant) Brunei on how it plans on handling the SCS issue in multilateral forums as appropriate. Brunei has traditionally preferred a low-key approach in dealing with contentious issues like the SCS, exemplified during ASEAN deliberations in July this year when its delegation simply said it would be “guided by” the decision of the ASEAN chair, as opposed to other claimants who insisted on a reference to the dispute in the joint communique. In 2013, the government in Bandar Seri Begawan will no longer have the luxury of simply deferring to other countries or remaining neutral as ASEAN chair. If Brunei needs any advice or guidance on tackling divisive issues, the organization’s more experienced members should be prepared to provide it.
Lastly, ASEAN states should not give in to intimidation by China on the SCS. Beijing has used such tactics in the past with claimant states, with its China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) calling for foreign oil and gas companies to explore nine blocks in disputed waters in violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty and its quarantine of imported tropical fruit from the Philippines after saber-rattling in the Scarborough Shoal. A new wave of intimidation appears to be taking shape just a few days after China downplayed territorial disputes at the EAS, with Beijing releasing fresh passports containing a map of China which includes parts of the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and others as well as disputed territory on the Indian border. Asian countries have rightly expressed outrage at the move and have responded by refusing to stamp them or drawing up their own maps. It is important that these countries continue to register their official protests in this manner in case Beijing tries to assert later on that stamping the passports could be regarded as effectively endorsing its claims.
Cambodia’s chairmanship this year has shown ASEAN that it is only as strong as its weakest link. In order to prevent outside actors from exploiting divisions within the bloc, ASEAN states must redouble their efforts at unifying their positions where they should and taking a clear stand where they must. Only then can the bloc continue to effectively occupy the driver’s seat in pushing for greater regional integration in the Asia-Pacific.
This piece originally appeared in The Diplomat. You can read that version here.
I’ve published a piece over at The Diplomat on what ASEAN should do after its unprecedented ‘failure’ to issue a joint communique at the foreign minister’s meeting in Phnom Penh earlier this month. You can read the full thing here, but I’m also placing it below.
Soul Searching After Phnom Penh
Questions are still being asked about ASEAN’s unprecedented failure to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in its 45-year history at Phnom Penh earlier this month due to disagreements over the South China Sea. Regardless of what transpired at the meeting, it was an embarrassing moment for ASEAN and it raises questions about the ability of the organization to preserve its autonomy and centrality amidst great powers with the potential to dominate the region. If the grouping needs to do some “soul searching” over the next few months, as ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan put it, where should it start?
A logical start should be to try to make some progress on the South China Sea (SCS), since events at Phnom Penh illustrated that intra-ASEAN divisions on the issue can clearly tarnish the organization’s image.
As a first step, the four ASEAN claimants- the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia- should aim to clarify and codify their various South China Sea (SCS) claims in order to present a more unified front to China, as others have advised. Beijing has a proven record of exploiting ambiguity to make contradictory claims in the SCS, some of which have very little basis in international law.
If ASEAN countries make their claims explicit by codifying them in domestic legislation and multilateral frameworks in accordance with international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), they can sort out areas where disputes are particularly intractable and aspects where their opinions converge. The ball would then be in China’s court to clarify the basis for its own claims. As of now, ambiguity on the SCS only allows Beijing to make dubious claims while simultaneously exposing divisions within ASEAN. While ASEAN should continue efforts toward a code of conduct with China, there is no substitute for clarity on this question.
Secondly and more broadly, ASEAN as a grouping should redouble efforts to preserve its centrality and cohesion. The organization is receiving greater international scrutiny these days and it will continue to grapple with tough issues like the SCS in the future. Yet at the same time, much like Cambodia in 2012, the next few years will see ASEAN chaired by smaller or less-developed states (Brunei in 2013, Burma in 2014, Laos in 2016). While these countries are capable in their own right, they may not have the same capacity to drive regional integration or tackle contentious disputes as an Indonesia or Singapore. And while Southeast Asia has other great leaders, it will be difficult to sustain the decade of vigorous and dynamic leadership ASEAN has enjoyed under Secretary Generals Ong Keng Yeong (2004-2008) and Surin Pitsuwan (2008-2012).
Confronting this challenge will require greater efforts on various fronts. For one, ASEAN must move faster on its goal of creating an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by 2015, given that the bloc is behind on several aspects of that initiative. Greater regional cohesion creates a stronger collective identity among all members of the organization and strengthens economic linkages between them, both of which will incentivize putting ASEAN first. But if states choose to “keep to themselves,” as Pitsuwan told the Myanmar Times earlier this year that will only hold ASEAN back. Repeats of Phnom Penh could also be avoided by agreeing on innovative ways to express legitimate disagreements, which will require flexibility from both the chair and other ASEAN countries. And if future crises do occur, solving them may require ASEAN’s older members to demonstrate leadership and innovation, like Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa’s “shuttle diplomacy”’ that led to the organization’s six-point principle agreement on Friday.
Outside actors like the United States and China should continue to support a strong and united ASEAN. Despite its shortcomings, the organization remains the best hub around which to structure a regional architecture that will socialize actors into a set of acceptable norms and behaviors, and guide Asia towards a prosperous and peaceful future. Equally important, they should also resist short-sighted attempts to undermine the bloc’s unity or exploit its divisions, since they will only undermine this shared goal and leave themselves increasingly isolated in a more integrated world.