2017 lookahead: The South China Sea challenge to ASEAN unity

2017 lookahead: The South China Sea challenge to ASEAN unity

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been urged to re-look its Charter and redefine its consensus-building mechanism that could hamper its unity.

ASEAN generic hi-res
File photo of ASEAN flag and flags of ASEAN member countries. (Photo: AFP/Romeo Gacad)

MANILA: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been urged to relook its Charter and redefine its consensus-building mechanism. Experts have also raised the need for the regional bloc to be adaptive and sufficiently flexible to achieve unity, in the face of shifting alliances among its 10 member states.

This year, ASEAN solidarity was put to the test by issues surrounding the South China Sea that dominated the region’s geo-political landscape.

In July, The Hague international tribunal ruled that there was no basis for China's claim over large portions of the South China Sea and that it had violated the Philippines' exclusive sovereign rights in the sea.

It was a victory for former President Benigno Aquino and his battle with Beijing over the issue. But the new administration in Manila has taken a different approach.

The sea dispute was put on the backburner as President Rodrigo Duterte normalised relations with Beijing, the strategic realignment culminating in a state visit to China and investment promises worth over US$20 billion.

In contrast, the Philippines' relations with its old ally, the United States, reached a new low in 2016.

President Duterte, reacting to the Obama administration's criticism of his war on drugs, announced Manila would reduce its economic and military reliance on Washington. But the tone has since softened.

Duterte, who has said he and US President-elect Donald Trump have the same temperament, hopes to have a better relationship with the incoming administration.

“Donald Trump has made it clear that his interest is in economic relations and the other considerations like political and military security … would flow from how economic relations are actually seen,” said Professor Hermann Kraft, University of the Philippines.

US-Philippine ties in the new year could well hinge on whether Trump implements the trade and immigration policies he promised during his campaign. They could not only put the Philippine economy under strain, but also dash any hope of a reset to the relationship.


Over in Vietnam, it was a historic year for ties with the United States – former enemies whose reconciliation came full circle with President Barack Obama’s visit in May, when he announced that the US fully lift the decades-old arms embargo on the country.

US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Vietnam President Tran Dai Quang

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang after an arrival ceremony at the presidential palace in Hanoi, Vietnam, on May 23, 2016. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

Behind warming ties with the US, however, Hanoi has the constant and pressing need to balance relations with its biggest trading partner China, and manage their contesting claims in the South China Sea.

“It’s not necessary for strong statements toward China, but it’s necessary to have more meetings and talks to engage and share Vietnam’s point of view. The top priority is to meet and talk. If there is no meeting or talk, the option then is to fight. But war is not in anyone’s interests,” said the Former Director of Vietnam’s National Border Committee Tran Cong Truc.

Vietnam has said it does not rule out any peaceful and legal means of settling its territorial disputes – which technically includes taking its case to court like the Philippines.

Experts in the country said arbitration is a seen as a last resort for a government which has made clear its priority is to manage the conflict with dialogue and negotiation, which means bilateral talks with all claimant states.

But for Vietnam, the South China Sea dispute is also a regional issue which must stay firmly on the ASEAN agenda, according to its officials.


ASEAN’s overarching interest in the South China Sea is to maintain peace and stability, but it is finding it more difficult to speak with one voice when each member state has differing national interests to protect.

However, senior diplomats from the region believe ASEAN must be flexible to maintain its centrality.

“I think now is the time (where) ASEAN can promote an architecture for the region that has an adaptive capacity (that is) sufficiently fluid, sufficiently flexible to be able to achieve unity,” said Mr Marty Natalegawa, who was Indonesia’s Foreign Minister under President Suslio Bambang Yudhoyono.

He added: “I think ASEAN must be able to ensure that this is not an either-or proposition. Now it is possible to have a united cohesive ASEAN speaking with one voice and at the same time make it possible for individual ASEAN member states to have these other close relations with powers outside ASEAN. As long as those countries recognise that in the final analysis, their interest of the region must be primary in their concern.”

Mr Ong Keng Yong, ASEAN’s former Secretary-General, said it is time the regional bloc re-consider its consensus-building approach.

“Maybe we can say: Okay, now maybe we should look at our ASEAN charter, since that is our constitutional document, where the norms and practices of ASEAN have been embodied,” said Mr Ong who served from 2003-2007. “Let’s look at the ASEAN charter and see: Can we do some innovative mechanisms to say - in some cases it doesn’t have to be 10 out of 10. Eight out of 10 is enough or nine out of 10 is enough.”

It has been eight years since the ASEAN Charter came into force. During that time, there have been major developments in the region that have required ASEAN’s appropriate and timely response.

There is a provision for the Charter to be reviewed every five years, and perhaps the Philippines may put the agenda on the table when it becomes ASEAN Chair in 2017.

Source: CNA/dl