Asean's once united purpose appears adrift on South China Sea

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 November, 2012, 2:22am

Taking place amid so much global financial uncertainty, this year's East Asia Summit should have been firmly focused on building and strengthening regional economic ties. Within hours of the meeting opening in Phnom Penh last Tuesday, though, it quickly became apparent that some members' disputes with China, over islands in the South China Sea, that were heatedly raised at annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations talks in preceding days would take centre stage. There is a time and place for discussion of these matters - a decade-old framework for co-operation agreed between Beijing and Asean makes that clear. That the conflicts are overshadowing the discussion of more pressing issues means that a new way of dealing with them has to be found.

The summit was attended by the leaders of China, the US, Asean's 10 members, Japan, South Korea, India, Russia, Australia and New Zealand. It aimed to attain economic stability, peace and prosperity. The launching of a free-trade pact among 16 of its members, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, was broached, but should have been the highlight. Just five of the countries - China, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines - are directly involved in the South China Sea dispute, while the US, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Indonesia have an economic interest.

As at the Asean foreign ministers' meeting in July, the Philippines and Vietnam again raised their island disputes. Cambodia, as the host and Asean chair, accused them of internationalising the issue and tried to limit discussion. It can be argued that the sovereignty claims are a wedge to peace and stability in East Asia and there is no better setting to give greater urgency to the framework's objective of establishing a code of conduct for rival nations. Equally, China's long-established position could be taken: that freedom of navigation is assured and territorial disputes are a bilateral matter.

Whichever is followed, though, it is clear that the persistent delays over formulating a code of conduct are poisoning the region's geopolitical waters. Through using their influence, China and the US are dividing Asean's members, eroding the consensus that has been the basis for its decision-making since it was formed 45 years ago. Asean increasingly looks like merely an association, not an alliance with a united purpose and goal. Only by finding a better way to manage rows that affect member nations is there a hope of focus being regained.