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Why Asean is fast losing its relevance

05:03 AM July 02, 2019

After more than five decades as a regional grouping, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), formed at the height of the Cold War on Aug. 8, l967, is fast losing its relevance in resolving the major concerns of its 10 member countries.

If you read the Chairman’s Statement of the 34th Asean Summit issued on June 23 in Bangkok, you would be dismayed by its total lack of gravitas, not to mention the lack of any workable mechanisms that Asean should have taken in solving regional security issues. The document is almost a complete rehash of earlier Asean communiqués: long, repetitive, vapid and full of diplomatic gobbledygook.

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Through the years, during their frequent meetings, Asean officials often engaged in formalities rather than dwelt on substantive issues. The meetings merely afforded photo opportunities for the grouping’s leaders in the now familiar linking-arms pose.

In the Bangkok statement, Asean reaffirmed what has been reaffirmed in almost every summit: its “shared commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability in the region, as well as to the peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).”

The Philippines, along with Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei Darussalam, has claimed parts of the islands, shoals, reefs and atolls that straddle the South China Sea. But China has adamantly refused to respect the ruling of the Hague arbitral court in the successful case filed by the Philippines, despite its being a signatory to Unclos, which binds member countries to respect each other’s exclusive economic zones.

According to the Chairman’s Statement, Asean discussed matters relating to the South China Sea and “took note of some concerns on the land reclamations and activities in the area which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”

But Asean did not mention China as the main culprit behind not just the massive reclamations but also the militarization of some islands and atolls claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam. The Bangkok statement only emphasized the importance of nonmilitarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states that could “further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea.”

China was mentioned only later, when Asean again stressed, for the nth time, the importance of the conclusion of a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea that could serve as a mechanism for claimant countries to peacefully resolve their overlapping claims.

Just like what it said in the Singapore summit last year and in earlier summits, the Bangkok Asean statement said it welcomed “practical measures” that would reduce tensions and the risk of accidents, misunderstandings and miscalculations in the area—but without mentioning what these practical measures are.

In fairness to President Duterte, during the Bangkok summit, he did call on China to speed up the conclusion of the COC, saying that the longer it dillydallied, the more America and the rest of the Western powers would “test the waters,” which could result in a miscalculation. “It could be a silent irritation, but if it explodes, the consequences are really terrible; it should not be acceptable to anybody,” Mr. Duterte said.

Unfortunately, Mr. Duterte’s remarks were not mentioned, even in passing, in the Chairman’s Statement. Of course, the statement had been prepared well in advance by senior officials and foreign ministers of Asean. But since the foreign ministers were with their principals in the summit, they could have inserted a few lines about Mr. Duterte’s warning to make the document more substantial and less staid. But perhaps even that innocuous mention would have ruffled feathers in Beijing?

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In the Singapore summit last year, China reassured Asean that it would approve the COC in three years’ time, in 2021—or 17 years after it agreed to its adoption in 2002.

One hopes, against serious doubts, that China does keep its promise this time and produce the document in two years’ time. Otherwise, Asean should just forget about the Code once and for all.

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Alito L. Malinao is the former news editor of the Manila Standard. He is on leave as journalism professor at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila and is the author of the book “Journalism for Filipinos.”

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TAGS: Alito L. Malinao, Asean, code of conduct, Inquirer Commentary, Maritime Dispute, Rodrigo Duterte
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