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Putting the ASEAN Humpty Dumpty back together again

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has not been flying to ASEAN capitals just to try to put together a statement, or the joint communique that should have been issued at the end of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh earlier this month. He is trying to put the ASEAN Humpty Dumpty back together again. And everyone – not least the Philippines, Vietnam, ASEAN chair Cambodia, and all other member countries, but even China, the United States, ASEAN’s other dialogue partners, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, would do well to come with their glue and adhesives and participate in this effort. At stake is much more than the few sentences that would reflect that ASEAN did discuss and come to agreement on the recent tensions between members states Vietnam and the Philippines on one hand, and the group’s dialogue partner China on the other. Although certainly, one is confounded that the chair could not muster the wisdom and perseverance to forge even a minimalist consensus, perhaps – goes the speculation - because of promises made to a non-member of the ASEAN family. Like any family, there is bickering among siblings in ASEAN. Everyone knows that ASEAN countries have diverse perspectives not just on this but on many other subjects. At the risk of speculation, does it come as a surprise that Indonesia, rather than the ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan who is from Thailand, is doing the troubleshooting this time? It shouldn’t, because Thailand and Cambodia still have to repair frayed relations themselves, with some troops still facing off in the Preah Vihear temple where border tensions have flared since 2008. Other bilateral irritants exist among member states, but are downplayed whenever ASEAN meetings take place precisely because ASEAN itself is more important than the sum of its parts, and certainly more important than any single member. Therefore for the last 45 years, the ASEAN joint communique would be issued at the end of a meeting, even if it is expected to reflect only the lowest common denominator, and even if only as a symbolic affirmation of shared strategic interests.  By breaking with what had thus far been consistent ASEAN practice of issuing a communique, the message is that perhaps some members don’t recognize that those shared strategic interests still exist. If so, what is the purpose of ASEAN or what is the purpose of their being in ASEAN?  I would argue that the most important strategic interest that ASEAN must pursue and which has underpinned its existence all these years is the need for the small and medium powers that comprise Southeast Asia to collectively preserve their autonomy against any great power that would dominate the region. This is why Cambodia’s perceived weakness in the face of Chinese pressure and enticements is so important, as it has hurt ASEAN’s most important aspiration. For the same reason, and this is important for the Aquino government to understand – the Philippines' perceived excessive and unabashed enthusiasm for the United States to intervene in a resolution of the territorial disputes, however understandable from the national interest point of view, also unnerves many in ASEAN, even those who quietly support a robust US presence. After all, the US is the other elephant in the room, and what is provoking China’s assertiveness is precisely Beijing’s fear of a US ‘rebalancing’ in Asia being directed against it, and ASEAN becoming Washington’s co-conspirator. If ASEAN cannot speak with one voice, as we saw in Phnom Penh, it not only undermines ASEAN’s so-called “centrality” but it delegitimizes ASEAN's role as a collective actor in dealing with other countries, especially as it prepares to negotiate with China on a code of conduct on the South China Sea. In the context of China’s rapid military modernization and growing assertiveness, these upcoming negotiations should be a critical opportunity for ASEAN to pursue conflict prevention measures that could spell the difference between peace and armed conflict in its maritime domain. Such conflict prevention measures may involve a moratorium on further expansion of military presence, military exclusion zones around disputed land features, agreements on how to deal with fishing activities in the overlapping claims, hotlines between leaders, among others. These, more than resolution of the ownership issue over Bajo de Masinloc as the Philippines prefers, are the urgent tasks ahead of ASEAN. So urgent that, if ASEAN’s non-claimants will feel burdened by what these difficult negotiations may entail, then the claimants (Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei) at the very least, with the support of ASEAN members who do feel they are stakeholders (possibly Indonesia and Singapore), should consider establishing a separate framework – preferably under ASEAN auspices – to pursue the code of conduct talks with China.  ASEAN fancies itself to be a building block towards a cooperative and multilateralist security architecture for the region. If ASEAN cannot now rectify the situation through a solid show of unity before discussions on a code of conduct begin, it throws away a major opportunity to start building. Otherwise, over the long run, it might as well abdicate the responsibility for managing its own regional problems in Southeast Asia to the external big powers. - GMA News Dr. Aileen S.P. Baviera is a professor at the Asian Center, University of the Philippines, where she specializes in China and Asia-Pacific regional security.