By: Stella Tomeldan, InterAksyon.com
November 17, 2012 1:25 PM
PHNOM PENH – This week’s summit here of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is seen as a golden opportunity to prevent the spread of a creeping mistrust, which marred an earlier meeting, arising from different positions on the South China Sea maritime disputes. It is as well a chance for the bloc to find its gravitas as a regional player amid strong economic giants like the US, China and Japan.
The chief diplomat of the regional bloc alluded to what he described as a growing “inner mistrust” among some members—four of whom are parties in the maritime row with Asian giant China—and said the bloc’s top foreign officials are working hard to prevent the South China Sea territorial disputes from spilling out again.
US President Barack Obama, who leads non-ASEAN leaders attending this week’s meetings in Cambodia, was earlier reported as expected to dwell on the South China Sea, by way of reiterating America’s stake in keeping navigation lanes open at all times.
Asean’s secretary general, Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, said the bloc is struggling ” to cultivate with more efficiency” ways to deal with matters like the disputes in the South China Sea—which Manila calls the West Philippine Sea. The disputes impact stability of the region, and thus occupy top priority, ASEAN leaders have said.
He briefed journalists in a roundtable discussion on ASEAN connectivity, which was organized by the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA), a think tank on ASEAN and East Asia market integration.
The optimism that the creeping mistrust might be somehow replaced by a more open discussion arises from the recent change of leadership in China, a matter giving rise to the “the expectation [that] China will give some flexibility,” according to Dr. Surin, who will exit as Asean secretary general in over a month.
The territorial conflicts are widely seen to dominate discussions at the ASEAN Leaders Summit that begins Monday, but none of the dramatic clashes, public or private, which marred an earlier meeting in Cambodia, are expected this time. The reason: ASEAN officials have been busy doing backdoor diplomacy since July to ensure that there will be a joint communique at the end of this week’s meeting.
The failure of the bloc’s leaders to issue a joint statement for the first time in 45 years at the ASEAN Regional Forum a few months ago had sorely tested the bloc’s effectivity in dealing with regional conflict and exposed inner wranglings of members, Dr. Surin said.
For instance, Cambodia which holds the rotating chairmanship and was seen as inclined toward China, had refused to include the ASEAN concern over growing Chinese presence in the disputed SCS islands, drawing flak from claimant countries led by the Philippines. The other ASEAN members who claim part of the Spratlys are Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia.
The stakes are high in this week’s meetings, both the main ones and the side huddles. Dr. Surin conceded that ASEAN, now seen as one of the strongest regional forces in the world—a matter affirmed by the presence of Obama, say observers— “is not prepared” fully to deal with conflicts around the region, particularly those that involve economic giants such as China, Japan and the US.
ASEAN, though it was set up in 1967, “has to legitimize its power and centrality,” said Dr. Surin.
Alluding to America’s widely publicized shift of the bulk of its military presence from the Middle East to Asia, Dr. Surin said the regional bloc members must deliberate together and find their way through the changing configurations, so as to benefit from them.
“US pivoting towards Asia means reengagement after long years of absence,” said Dr. Surin. “It’s a challenge now for Asean [to determine] how to benefit from the presence of contending powers.”
Still, he said, ASEAN needs to assert ” its central role in the region and be careful not to be driven from behind.”
ASEAN leaders are also expected to sign the region’s human-rights declaration and issue a report on the mid-term review of the bloc’s economic integration goal by 2015. Issues surrounding integration had come under intense scrutiny in light of Europe’s example: that is, it own serious problems as poorer EU members and rich, original member-states grapple with the debt crisis.