AT THE conclusion of the twentieth summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, the organisation celebrated its achievements while casting a worried eye over potentially unsettling times ahead. This is not to say that the region is in any foreseeable danger of conflict, but growing international tensions do have the potential to tug the ten member nations in different directions.
While ASEAN was keen to underline its success in pushing for peaceful reforms in Burma and draw attention to growing economic integration within the bloc, the flaring of a number of touchpoints at the summit exposed divisions among the members (not entirely unusual) but also, perhaps more importantly, highlighted undisguised lobbying of member governments by Washington and Beijing.
It is perhaps an acknowledgement of ASEAN’s growing international stature, if not influence, that its members are being wooed by both the United States and China to take sides on a range of issues. “In some ways,” said an official from the foreign ministry in Cambodia, which hosted the summit, “we are starting to see a replay of the Cold War scenario that said you have to be on one side or the other.
Senior ASEAN officials at briefings in Phnom Penh diplomatically referred to a “manoeuvring” process, the results of which served to divert much of the summit’s focus from internal developments to global issues, ranging from Iran and Afghanistan to the tensions on the Korean peninsula in the wake of North Korea’s rocket launches. But it was the disputed territorial issue of the South Chinas Sea, involving competing claims by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam along with two non-ASEAN governments, China and Taiwan, that created the most heat.
The Philippines has been strongly supported – some even say encouraged – by the United States to back away from earlier accommodation with China over the issue. Meanwhile Vietnam, with the dangled incentive of further US aid, is hardening its line against the Chinese claims to strategic and resource-rich offshore islands, most notably the Spratly Islands.
The issue occupied several protracted sessions of the Phnom Penh summit, centring largely on a proposed set of diplomatic protocols governing the disputed areas. A sticking point is the extent of China’s role in the process. Although Indonesia, along with summit host Cambodia, pushed for greater Chinese involvement, the other members were less enthusiastic. Even in Cambodia, political opinion was divided, with opposition leader Sam Rainsy releasing a letter he wrote to Chinese president Hu Jintao urging China to resolve differences not multilaterally but through individual negotiations with each country, effectively sidelining ASEAN.
Concerns over big power manoeuvring were given added impetus during a visit to Cambodia the previous week by Hu, who concluded a series of aid agreements and loans. At a concluding press conference at the summit, Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, was forced to deny that his country’s support was being bought; but he did use the opportunity to heap praise on China’s efforts, crediting China with “saving” the ASEAN economy during the so-called Asian meltdown in 1997, and lauding Beijing’s “generosity” to Europe during the 2008 economic crisis.
The controversies over the South China Sea and big power pressure overshadowed what the ASEAN leaders hoped would be a celebration of the beginning of political reform in Burma. ASEAN has played a key role in the thaw, especially by emphasing diplomacy rather than sanctions of the kind imposed by the United States and the European Union. ASEAN leaders felt vindicated by last weekend’s by-elections, which saw Aung San Suu Kyi elected to parliament.
But member nations, of which Burma is one, have more than human rights on their mind, with officials pointing to the potential of Burma’s economy as it opens up further to investment and trade. The prospect of a large new consumer market is seen as particularly important with the European debt crisis and the slowing of growth in China.
Yet ASEAN’s quiet diplomacy over Burma, like its earlier coordinating effort in containing the bird flu outbreak, has gone largely unheralded, much to the chagrin of the leaders gathered in Phnom Penh. “The region is stable, more so than ever, and stability, peace and economic development are our key aims as we move towards greater integration,” one official told me, “but we get little credit, even among our own publics, who remain largely unaware of ASEAN.”
ASEAN’s charismatic secretary-general, Thailand’s Surin Pitsuwan, conceded that ASEAN, for all its efforts, remained an abstraction to those of its 600 million people who had even heard of it. The secretary-general, who will step down at the end of the year, characterised the grouping as a “network of dialogue.” (One ASEAN official even canvassed the idea of an “ASEAN Idol” television program as a means of raising awareness among young people.)
Yet key players at the ASEAN summit were keenly aware of the dangers ahead, with a secretary of state in the Cambodian foreign ministry, Kao Kimhourn, speaking delicately of the need for caution in regard to ASEAN’s role in global conflicts and issues affecting what he termed “our powerful nation neighbour,” simultaneously acknowledging China’s role in the region and signalling US efforts to counter it.
Strong supporters of ASEAN like to trace its origins to the birth of the non-aligned movement in Bandung in 1955. But they also point to the region’s relatively short-lived anti-communist defence pact, the South East Asian Treaty Organisation, which is seen as a failure largely because of its thinly veiled role as a creature of US policy. That’s not a mistake that ASEAN figures with long memories want to see repeated. “We must not allow ourselves to be manipulated or manoeuvred,” one veteran diplomat said.
Danger also lurks on another front as ASEAN steps up its economic integration program, with member nations having to counter an expected rise of nationalism, according to Camboldia’s information minister, Khieu Kanharith. “We are pledged to increase prosperity, and to increase prosperity we will need to further enhance competition,” he said. “For a poor country like Cambodia, lacking many essential skills, this will mean bringing in more skilled foreigners, and people will ask why are the jobs going to foreigners. We need to explain this.”
Next year, the rotating secretary-generalship will pass to Vietnam which, say observers here, will further test ASEAN’s professed commitment to greater openness and democratisation. •
Norman Abjorensen teaches public policy in the Crawford School of Economics and Government at the Australian National University.