Written by Scott Edwards.

As ASEAN reached its 50th anniversary on the 8th of August, questions over its increasing relevance continued to dominate discussion. No issue overshadows ASEAN’s anniversary more than ASEAN’s role in the South China Sea.

In the lead up to the birthday celebrations, the focus was on the 50th Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile tests and terrorism in the region were expected to take centre stage. But it was ASEAN’s stance on the South China Sea that was deemed to be the primary test of the organisation’s ongoing significance.

Such questions of ASEAN’s relevance would be more successfully dodged if it was succeeding in its traditional role of maintaining and improving inter-state relations.

The outcome was as weak as expected, but, despite claims to the contrary, this does not make ASEAN irrelevant. Progress is being made despite significant obstacles.

ASEAN’s relevance at 50

ASEAN has opened itself up to criticism by expanding its sectoral involvement through the three pillars; Political-Security, Economic, and Socio-cultural, guided by the 2008 ASEAN charter. These pillars demonstrate that ASEAN’s focus has expanded beyond traditional interstate issues to encompass problems such as human rights, and broaden its community building beyond state elites to the wider populations.

Despite the commitments it has made in these areas, however, it continues to fall short. Critics argue that ASEAN has a woeful history in dealing with human rights abuses, such as the ongoing campaign against the Rohingya in Myanmar, as well as an inability to tackle trans-boundary issues such as the haze. There has been some progress in attempting to make ASEAN more of a ‘people-oriented community’. However, there have been significant obstacles resulting from a continued state-centrism and emphasis on national interest. This has led to calls for ASEAN to focus on social integration in the next 50 years.

Such questions of ASEAN’s relevance would be more successfully dodged if it was succeeding in its traditional role in the maintenance and improvement of inter-state relations. Internally ASEAN has been successful in at least muting conflicts within the region, something which Mahbubani has dubbed a ‘modern miracle’. When dealing with external powers with extreme power asymmetries, however, ASEAN’s relevance has come under considerable attack. Nowhere is this more demonstrated than the South China Sea, where ASEAN’s relevance, unity, centrality, or solidarity have been criticised.

ASEAN and the South China Sea

The involvement of external powers such as China, the US, and Japan complicate the issue. Both the US and China have attempted to influence ASEAN’s member states to take, or avoid, a stronger role in the issue.

This has exacerbated internal divisions, and previous attempts of ASEAN to form a solid front have been hampered by trying to reconcile contradictory national interests. Countries such as Vietnam and, historically, the Philippines, have sought a stronger stance against China. Others more dependent on China, such as Cambodia and Laos, have successfully blocked such a stance emerging. All countries’ relationships with China have their own complexities. Such disunity, in 2012, led to a failure (the first time) for ASEAN to agree on a joint statement.

Increasing hostilities and tensions, however, make a solution more important than ever. China has been militarising the area, particularly the artificial islands it has been constructing. In response, the USA has increased Freedom of Navigation patrols. Prior to the 50th Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, China threatened Vietnam with force if it did not cease an end to its oil exploration. Such dynamics have led to increased concerns about the South China Sea, and demands for greater ASEAN unity.

The 50th Foreign Ministers’ Meeting

There was a hope that the 50th Foreign Ministers’ meeting would not only release a strong statement, but would also result in a framework for a Code of Conduct with an intention to be ‘legally binding, comprehensive, and effective’. It was argued a failure to achieve this would result in the failure of ASEAN’s unity, solidarity, and centrality.

Such critics may be disappointed by the framework announced. It lacked detail, and there was little (or no) progress beyond the (non-implemented) 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. The lack of substance resulted in arguments that China had ‘won’ – even if a more substantial code had materialised, there would be little chance that China would follow it.

Most disappointingly for the critics, however, is that there was no indication that the code would be legally binding. The language was absent from the framework, which instead discussed a ‘rules-based framework, containing a set of norms’. To listen to the critics, then, would be to assume that the announcement was essentially the death knell for ASEAN’s unity, centrality, and, significantly, its relevance.

An optimist’s view

The announcement made at the Foreign Minister’s Meeting should not have us mourning the loss of ASEAN’s relevance. It may reflect ASEAN following the same old tired path that it has before, but this way of doing business has avoided inter-state war in the region. The ‘ASEAN way’ – avoiding open criticism and resorting to an informal processes of diplomacy, centred on consensus and culminating in the theatre of ASEAN summitry – has been important for trust-building within the region.

Trust-building cannot resolve the disputes on its own, but, as Laksmana argues, ASEAN shouldn’t be expected to achieve such a lofty goal. To judge ASEAN’s relevance based on this would ignore the massive power asymmetries between the states involved.

The states instead came together and proposed a framework that, while not as strong as desired by many, mediated the extensive differences in the member states’ national interests. Pushing too far one way or the other would have contributed to ASEAN’s disunity, not unity.

Furthermore, ASEAN working with China is in itself a significant indicator of its continuing relevance. By providing the arena for negotiation and discussion, no matter how arduous, frustrating, or weak it might be, allows avenues for the management of tensions. The framework announcement included for the first time the language of prevention and management of incidents, and there are little other opportunities or structures for negotiation and engagement to take place.

Talking not acting?

Whilst this may be a case of ASEAN merely talking, with no tangible mechanisms in place, it should be remembered that in the past this has worked for ASEAN’s member states in overcoming, or at least muting, the potential for conflict. Trust-building has always been perceived as significant in bridging the divides between the member states, and it makes sense that ASEAN would attempt to embark on a similar path in mediating the tensions with China.

As for ASEAN’s relevance, considering this is one of ASEAN’s most divisive issues, any progress should be celebrated. ASEAN can maintain relevance in the South China Sea by mediating the differences between its member states, and if it can continue to provide the structure for negotiation, then it has significant potential in remaining a central part of Southeast Asia.

This is not to argue that ASEAN should not be transformative. The obstacles it faces should also not be downplayed. It is clear that to maintain relevance in the future, many issues need to be overcome. Continuing negotiations, however, over this divisive issue represents a step in the right direction.

Scott Edwards (@ScottEdvvards) is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on trust between ASEAN member states. Image Credit: Gunawan Kartapranata – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

 

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