Without open dialogue, Asean neutrality risks becoming neutered
Asean's failure to issue a communique at the end of the ministerial meeting hosted in Cambodia last week shocked many. Reports indicate that drafting floundered on the issue of the South China Sea, where the sovereignty of different islets is disputed. The Philippines wished to record that the matter had been discussed whereas Cambodia, which currently chairs the group, felt that any mention would compromise Asean neutrality.
The claims in the South China Sea were never going to be resolved by a statement, however worded. As such, the unprecedented failure highlights not so much the struggle to deal with a sensitive issue but rather suggests what are more systemic concerns about divisions within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
These come at a time when the group needs to show unity and resolve to create an Asean Community by 2015. It also dents the group's credibility as host for talks that span not just its own region but a wider footprint, like the newly created East Asia Summit.
Factors of division within the group have been emerging over time. These relate not just to the South China Sea, but more broadly to the roles of the US and China and such issues as the Mekong River and Myanmar.
The Obama administration's 'pivot' to give more attention to Asia over the last four years has been evident and largely well received. But this comes after more than a decade in which China has emerged as the best friend to many. Given the economic dynamics, China will not go away but can only grow in importance. This is especially notable in Beijing's largesse to some in Asean.
Consider Cambodia, the host of the failed meeting. Over the last decade, Beijing has provided billions for infrastructure, including the building for its Council of Ministers. In April, Chinese leader Hu Jintao made a four-day state visit and just a month before the Asean ministerial meeting, a senior Communist Party leader visited Phnom Penh with promises to 'take strategic approaches to step up the bilateral co-operation to a new height'.
Given that the American market remains its largest trade partner, Cambodia seems to be playing a risky game. Intended or otherwise, the failure at the Phnom Penh meeting is seen as favouring China.
Other Asean members have reached different positions. The Philippines has strengthened its US alliance as Manila asserts its claims to areas in the South China Sea. Vietnam has tilted towards America and the recent visit by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta to Hanoi raises the possibility of hosting an American military presence at Cam Ranh Bay.
What can the small- and medium-sized states in Asean do given such power dynamics?
Asean could breathe easier if Beijing and Washington recognise their inter-dependence and that the region is big enough for both. But if the voices of disparity grow louder and it comes to push and shove, Asean will be in an unenviable position.
Other initiatives are hard but possible. For too long, individual countries' policies towards China and the US have been little discussed. Dialogue could help each Asean member understand the other's concerns and seek common positions. Agreeing on anchor points about the critical relationships with these giants would help the group maintain centrality.
Finally comes what should be do-able but wasn't achieved at the meeting; to agree a form of words, a set phrase, on the South China Sea.
Critics will say that papering over differences will not resolve the issue. Of course not, but there are other uses. Think of papered-up forms of words like the 'one China' principle in relation to Taiwan. While this is open to varying interpretations, it has helped frame a range of differences that is understood (but not conceded) by each party.
Not least, if Asean can reach such a form of words about the South China Sea, then its communiques need not be held captive to a single issue. Noting but setting aside what is unresolved, the group would then be able to go on to deal with the rest of its agenda, where consensus is possible.
Asean has achieved centrality as a kind of default position, and largely because great powers lack sufficient trust amongst themselves. There are however still necessary conditions to be of use in this role.
Perfect neutrality is impossible, when some of its members ally with one power, or receive substantial aid from another. But open dialogue about a range of issues is critical for Asean-led talks to remain relevant.
For this, each member must be willing to keep the group's interest in view, and not focus solely on its bilateral ties with China or America. Otherwise Asean will not only fail to be neutral, but be ineffective and indeed neutered.
Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and teaches at the National University of Singapore's Faculty of Law. This article first appeared in Singapore's Today newspaper