THE recent meeting of foreign ministers in the Laotian capital of Vientiane vividly illustrates how irrelevant the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has become as a regional bloc that protects its members’ interests.
The joint statement that was finally released by the foreign ministers did not mention the recent landmark decision of a UN tribunal to reject China’s overreaching claims to practically the entire South China Sea, even though the ruling directly favored the territorial interests of two Asean members, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The communiqué referred lamely instead to the need to find peaceful solutions to disputes in the South China Sea in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
“We remain seriously concerned about recent and ongoing developments and took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region,” the Asean communiqué said—without even mentioning the cause of these concerns, China.
The Philippines and Vietnam both wanted the communiqué to mention the ruling, which denied China’s sweeping claims in the strategic seaway that channels more than $5 trillion in global trade each year, and a call to respect international maritime law.
But Asean works strictly by consensus, and Cambodia, China’s closest ally in the bloc, rejected the wording on the ruling even though it has no direct stake whatsoever in the issue.
The Philippines, which had sought the inclusion of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision in the joint statement, eventually backed down to prevent the bloc from failing to issue any communiqué whatsoever, as it did in Phnom Penh in 2012 during the 45th Asean Foreign Ministers meeting—over the same territorial dispute.
While there might be some consolation to be had in the release of a watered-down communiqué, any notion of regional unity was exposed as a sham.
One member, Cambodia, effectively exercised veto power over the rest of the Asean members by virtue of the group’s policy of consensus, and held hostage the interests of two of its fellow members to curry favor with its powerful patron, China, a non-member.
Of this, there could be little doubt, as China publicly thanked Phnom Penh afterward for its support.
By issuing a watered-down statement, the Asean may have staved off the embarrassment of failing to reach a consensus. But in the long term, the Asean’s failure to support the interests of its member states against an outsider damaged its credibility and brought into question its continued relevance as a regional force.