Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Asean centrality vital to unification effort

In light of the failed issuance of a joint communique in early July, the question arises whether this will lead to an end to Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) centrality, while Asean experts suggest that the bloc upgrade the secretariat's capacity in order to strengthen the collective entity.

Dr Amitav Acharya, an international relations professor from the American University and a renowned expert on Southeast Asian affairs, said in regard to the so-called "Cambodia Incident", people tend to miss looking at it through the historical view.

He explained that one of the problems today is that people only started paying attention to the region when the Obama administration gave prominence to Asean. "But their expertise and knowledge goes back to 2009, and not to 1967," he said.

"So there's a tendency to interpret Asean from a short-term perspective, missing out on the long-term picture, and [they] have a very inflated expectation of what Asean is and what Asean can do."

Dr Acharya pointed out that a lot of the commentary on the previous Asean ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh missed out the fact that a lot of the problems had to do with Cambodia. In 2009, Cambodia appointed Thaksin Shinawatra, a fugitive, as an advisor. For whatever logic, he said, this was not consistent with the way Asean conducts business.

"Now we have a situation where every other member country had accepted the communique and one country held back … there was no chance of a consensus because of very single-minded insistence on the part of Cambodia," he said.

Cambodia issued a statement on July 26, saying that it has never been an Asean tradition to discuss contentious bilateral disputes, which was why it could not go ahead with discussing or mentioning in the joint communique the positions of the Philippines and Vietnam on maritime territorial disputes with China.

Dr Acharya said that in fact, the disputes in the South China Sea are not strictly a bilateral dispute, as Asean thinks of them as a multilateral issue as much as anything else, and wants to talk to China multilaterally.
Regarding Asean's non-interference norm between member countries, China is not a member of Asean. Thus, it is not an intra-Asean dispute, according to the regional affairs expert.

Asean is a group of relatively small states that, because of a collective willingness to stick together on some common principles, have made a much better impact on international relations than would otherwise have been the case, Acharya said.

He added that the Southeast Asian bloc needs to make some serious adjustments to the way it conducts business: first, by improving the analytical capacity of the Secretariat. A good analytical capacity on the part of the Secretariat should have allowed officials to realise that a problem was brewing and to prepare options or alerted member states.

"The officials of the Asean Secretariat still think like they belong to their own member governments rather than working for Asean as a collective entity. It is a serious weakness. You cannot expect to run a regional organisation with a very weak secretariat, and Surin Pitsuwan, the secretary-general, has also warned of this challenge," he said.

"The Asean secretariat must think like a collective entity, like the community that Asean is supposed to become. Not like a conglomeration of individual states."

Through the help of the original members, Acharya said countries like Indonesia and Thailand now have a special responsibility in guiding Asean through this tough time. He spoke positively of Indonesia, which has been playing a bigger role in the region since it became democratic 10 years ago.

"I don't think this is the end of Asean centrality. Asean has faced crisis before; it will face crisis in the future. What is critical is that Asean carries on keeping in mind that its centrality comes with very serious responsibilities."

Next year, Brunei is set to take the chair of Asean and because it is a small but rich country, it is expected to be very pro-Asean. Like any other small nation in the region, it needs the bloc as a platform to reach out on the international arena.-Asia News Network (August 14, 2012)

No comments: