19th July 2012
Analysts are asking whether last week’s disastrous ASEAN conference in Phnom Penh will prove to be a defining moment in the bloc’s history: if it demonstrates that it is now irrevocably split down the middle between the mainland South-east Asian states – Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar – and those ASEAN littoral states with claims in the South China Sea.
ASEAN has long been seen as little more than a talk shop that avoided anything divisive at almost any cost – such as, for example, dealing with Burma – in preference for a woolly concept of “Asian consensus.
However, in 2007, Singapore’s elder statesman, Lee Kuan Yew, identified a division between ASEAN’s original member states and the poorer nations that joined in the 1990s, according to a Wikileak’s cable that originated from the US Embassy in Singapore. Lee told US officials that ASEAN should not have admitted Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam as members, fearful that some might act as a fifth column for China within ASEAN.
“The older members of ASEAN shared common values and an antipathy to communism,” the cable states, quoting Lee’s views. “Those values had been ‘muddied’ by the new members, and their economic and social problems made it doubtful they would ever behave like the older ASEAN members.”
The latest ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting came to an acrimonious end when delegates from the 10-member bloc failed the first time in it’s 45-year history failed to issue their customary joint communiqué.
“It was one of the most heated meetings in the history of ASEAN,” one diplomat was reported to have said. Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN secretary-general, was cut off in mid-address by Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong as he tried to bring up the topic, according to several South-east Asia diplomats present.
Officials from the Philippines in particular complained the bloc isn’t doing enough to stand up to China. Among other things, the Philippines wanted ASEAN to mention the disputed Scarborough Shoal – the site of a two-month stand-off between China and the Philippines that ended last month.
Apparently attempts finally stalled over Cambodia’s unwillingness to accept any mention of Scarborough Shoal even after Manila accepted a suggestion to change the wording to “affected shoal”.
In a letter signed by Philippine Undersecretary Erlinda F. Basilio, the Philippines indirectly accused Cambodia of “doing Beijing’s bidding.”
Hor Namhong, meanwhile, blamed unnamed “member countries” for trying to forcibly include a mention of the Scarborough Shoal issue in the final communiqué. He called these requests “unacceptable”, and laid the blame for the breakdown on “the whole of ASEAN”.
Cambodia apparently acting as China’s proxy must be particularly galling for Vietnam, Cambodia’s former patron. China has been determined to ensure the issue remains a bilateral rather than a multilateral one, as it clearly sees it as easier to bully smaller littoral states than confront a united bloc.
Its success at dividing ASEAN down the middle has serious implications for the bloc’s future.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has set off on an emergency swing through South-east Asia on Wednesday to try to patch up disagreements over the sea, according to the Associated Press, including some form of code of conduct to govern future disputes.
It is “critically important” for the bloc to make progress on the issue soon, he told a press conference. “If we do not do anything, we know the damage will become bigger,” he said.
However, Carl Thayer from the University of New South Wales said that the failure touched on a long-standing ASEAN fear that a lack of unity would allow ‘foreign powers’ to exploit its differences.
“This is the first major breach of the dyke of regional autonomy,” he said. “China has now reached into ASEAN’s inner sanctum and played on intra-ASEAN divisions. “Cambodia’s single act of obstinacy is a reflection of China’s influence and not Cambodian interests.”
In the worst-case scenario, he added, continuing disagreement could undermine the creation of the planned ASEAN Political-Security Community and potentially raise the spectre of a de facto division between the mainland Southeast Asian states – Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar – and ASEAN’s maritime states.
Of course the price China may well pay for its success is that it will drive the latter further into the arms of the Americans.