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ASEAN's agenda wider than isles dispute

Updated On: Aug 03, 2012
This commentary was originally published in TODAY on Thursday, 2 August 2012.
Escalating tensions over rival claims in the South China Sea are receiving headline attention. This is especially given China's move to install a garrison in the Paracels and proclaim the newly dubbed Sansha, built on one of the disputed islets, a full-fledged city.
Chances of conflict with two South-east Asian states - Vietnam and the Philippines - are increasing.
The Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) as the regional grouping has been thrown into the middle of this and its response at the most recent ministerial meeting does not augur well.
The host and current chair, Cambodia, refused to allow any mention of the dispute, as the Philippines wanted, resulting in the group failing to agree on even a final statement.
As China and four ASEAN member states assert overlapping claims, can ASEAN effectively resolve the issue? More fundamentally, can the group of 10 smaller and medium sized states maintain their unity? And, if ASEAN is ineffective and divided, will this critically impact the group's credibility as the convenor for wider regional dialogues, such as the East Asian Summit, which includes China, the United States and regional powers?
There are things that ASEAN can and should do about the South China Sea. After the failure in Phnom Penh, Indonesia Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa travelled to key ASEAN countries to salvage an agreed statement. Still, this only papers over differences and cannot solve the underlying conflict.
But the initiative shows an active and exceptional diplomacy by Indonesia, the largest ASEAN member. This increases the prospect for further progress, provided there is continued effort, realism and restraint.
No ASEAN member should be perceived as acting at China's behest - as some accused Cambodia of doing.
On the other hand, the four ASEAN claimants must not expect that the group as a whole will always take their side. Only then can the Code of Conduct - promised by both China and ASEAN and still pending - move ahead.
Even so, resolving the South China Sea dispute should not be taken as the sole benchmark for judging ASEAN's utility and credibility.
ASEAN has a wider agenda and purpose that aims to support not only its members but also major powers like China, Japan, India and the US. Any single issue or one-dimensional criterion will miss more than it measures.
Remember Myanmar. For many years, the human rights and other problems in that country were held out by some commentators as a litmus test for ASEAN. This, happily, is no longer the case, with Myanmar now rapidly opening up politically and economically.
ASEAN can rightfully claim some role in fostering these changes. But this was not by the censures and sanctions urged by many in the West. ASEAN, instead, provided a helpful context for developing a regional community and closer integration, as well as specific assistance, like the humanitarian efforts after Cyclone Nargis.
Beyond what ASEAN can and has done, change in Myanmar is driven by complex factors of the country's domestic politics and personalities, as well as great power politics.
Similarly, the South China Sea should not be the only measure for the group. As with Myanmar, while ASEAN can play a role, some key aspects of the problems lie outside its power. These include domestic politics, strident nationalistic sentiments in China and other claimant states and the future for American power in Asian waters.
A fairer judgment of ASEAN must account for the breadth and depth of the group's ambitions. Central to this is the planned creation of the ASEAN Community by 2015, with increased connectivity amongst the countries. For progress, all members need to show commitment to the ideal that for ASEAN, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
This ties to the question of ASEAN unity. Community-building efforts can help lessen the divisive effects of relations with non-ASEAN powers - whether China, the US or others.
The current state of ASEAN connectivity also shows up the broader role China now plays. As a major economy and a neighbour that borders South-east Asia, China is helping ASEAN economically, building roads and other infrastructure to link up the region.
Yet, an increasing Chinese presence is only palatable if Beijing understands that their role is only supportive and does not expect to dominate the region. On their part, ASEAN states, too, must engage China as partners and equals - and not as submissive tributaries, echoing old historic patterns when China was the central kingdom.
The pressures on ASEAN are increasing, as expectations have grown for the group to play a more central role for both its own members and for the major powers. Progress of the intra-ASEAN agenda for community-building and connectivity is just as important as its role in maintaining peace across the wider region. Indeed, the two are interwoven.
Watching ASEAN will require a more holistic lens, focusing on the business and economic opportunities as much as the political and strategic concerns. The group's ambitions may yet be judged as faltering but any such assessment must look at more than the turbulent waters of the South China Sea.