“One Vision, One Identity, One Community.”
That is the motto of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Very utopian. Some might say naïve. And yet this regional organization has, up until this year, always spoken in one voice with member states that always seemed to prize cooperation.
But this quixotic approach to regional relations is over. There has developed a pretty large schism within the organization which has become manifest in the three major summits held in 2012 in Cambodia, the last of which was just concluded this week. Not to sound alarmist, and not to oversimplify the problems, but it is pretty clear who the one, sole culprit is which has wrecked this once united, cohesive, and synergistic institution.
The People’s Republic of China.
Beijing’s duplicitous policy towards the regional bloc over the South China Sea issue, and its manipulation (read: bribery) of Cambodia — the chair of ASEAN for 2012 — has, in effect, given it a very large platform in an organization which it is not even itself a member of.
This was not always the case. Even though China has risen disproportionately higher than the weaker members of ASEAN over the past 20 years or so, many Southeast Asian countries seemed keen to continue cooperative measures with Beijing. This was in part because they realized tangible benefits from the proliferation of bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements, and also because there existed a hope that better economic ties with China would functionally reduce Beijing’s willingness to use military force on issues of vital interest.
This is often called “the Asian Way,” which is a cultural theory of international cooperation. “The Asian Way” is based on a foundation upon which foreign policy is conducted in the region, including Asian solutions to Asian problems, equality, consensus building, incrementalism, administration subordinated to politics, and Pan-Asianism, according to sources.
Not only has this line of thinking produced great economic benefits for most countries, but it has also had a powerful effect on reducing conflicts and enhancing diplomacy. It is an inimitable operational code which is uniquely Asian and also serves as a conflict resolution apparatus.
But that all appears to be history.
Back in July during the Asian Regional Forum, (ARF), the organization failed to release a joint statement for the first time ever. Cambodia kept pushing China’s position vis-à-vis the South China Sea dispute while the Philippines and Vietnam objected, privately accusing Phnom Penh of being bought off by Beijing.
Then, this past Sunday, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a statement which claimed that ASEAN had reached a consensus not to bring the South China Sea dispute to an international body, as per the wishes of Beijing. That was directly refuted on Monday by the Filipino delegation, with President Benigno Aquino saying “The ASEAN route is not the only route for us.”
In the post-mortem of the most recent conference, it can be concluded that Cambodia has used its chairmanship of ASEAN to promote China’s interests. In doing so, it has wrecked the cooperative mechanisms that had previously defined the organization and which made it stand out as a model for similar regional institutions around the world. This signifies a demonstrative setback for regional cooperation. ASEAN is now a splintered organization and shows little promise for accomplishing any sound objectives in due time.