Asean heads toward disintegration

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is headed toward irrelevance as a result of the tug-of-war between the United States and China over the South China Sea conflict.

The Asean members the Philippines, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam have been polarized between the two powers.

The regional grouping which officially became an economic bloc last December now can't even come up with a joint communique for several assemblies since 2012 due to the contentious sea conflict issue.

Questions are now being raised by Asean members on the bloc's viability if it can't even come up with a common stand on issues facing the region.

The Asean is considered largely as a discussion group with little achievement even with integration as its members gravitate toward the superpowers instead of standing up as a group.

The absence of a common position in the past few meetings of the Asean was mainly due to the inability to generate consensus on whether or not to refer to China and the South China Sea dispute.

Since Asean operates on the basis of consensus, which is a slow non-contentious process, a disagreement from one member is enough to defeat the crafting of a common position.

In the recent Asean foreign ministers' meeting in Laos, the Philippines and Vietnam wanted to include China and South China Sea in the group's communique but Cambodia, a staunch Chinese ally, insisted that no reference be made of these two words in the common statement. The result was expected in that Asean failed to present a common position to negotiate with China and exposed its disunity and lack of coordination.

The absence of a common statement also implies that the grouping no longer has a common agenda and a united voice, making useless the members supposed integration.

The sea dispute was the first issue to fracture the group as in the past even though member-states have differed on issues such as human rights, a compromise is always reached.

The United States is a key sources of Asean division. The Laos meeting took place following the July 12 ruling of the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, which voided China's maritime claims in the South China Sea.

The United States is prodding both the Philippines and Vietnam, which it considers as allies, for a final communique to include a reference to the court decision and the need to respect international law.

The US is doing this, however, in disregard of the fact that it has not even ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea which was the basis of the PCA ruling.

The US also instigated the Philippines to file the arbitration case in The Hague. China refused to take part in the proceedings, insisting that the court had no jurisdiction, and emphatically declared that it will not recognize the ruling.

Acting in support of China, Cambodia has blocked any mention of the PCA ruling in an Asean communique and declared its preference for territorial disputes to be settled through a bilateral basis - the stance taken by Beijing.

Before the PCA decision was handed down, the US Navy carried out three "freedom of navigation" operations, sending destroyers within the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit surrounding Chinese-administered islets.

The US military build-up in the South China Sea and the strengthening of military ties with surrounding countries, including the Philippines and Vietnam, were seen as part of a broader "pivot to Asia" to diplomatically isolate China, encircle it militarily and prepare for war.

Amid the posturing of the two superpowers, the Asean should find its own footing to stand up against the influences of China and US, and instead promote its own interest as a united bloc.

Source: Tribune

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