OPINION: The un-Asean way of treating unresolved issues

Sabam Siagian in Jakarta/The Jakarta Post
Asia News Network

Jakarta (The Jakarta Post/ANN) - For the first time in its 45-year history, the annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) foreign ministers in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh has failed to adopt an agreed upon final communique.

In the past years, this pre-cooked document has served as a summing up of the achieved agreements during the past working year, and an outline of matters that still need to be tackled.

Unresolved issues were not mentioned or included in the final communique. Most probably, there was this unflagging optimism as part of the region's social culture that unresolved problems in due time would find their natural solutions. In sum, that is the traditional Asean way.

That cozy Asean way was shattered in Phnom Penh. The Philippines and Vietnam insisted that their recent clashes with China should be mentioned and included in the final communique.

Last April, Chinese and Philippine government ships were in a confrontational mode over the Scarborough Shoal. Chinese maps refer to this string of sandbanks as Huayang.

The strategic issue is the legal ownership of potential reserves of oil and gas - so far unproven - that may be discovered in the exclusive economic zone of Scarborough Shoal (or Huayang), which depends on the national flag that is planted on the string of sandbanks. Philippino Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario was indeed blunt - and very un-Asean - when he directly accused the Chair, Cambodia's foreign minister Hor Namhong, of "consistently defending China's interest".

The Chair has refused to comply with the wishes of the Philippines and Vietnam although the South China Sea issue had been mentioned in the Chairman's (Indonesia) statement after the Asean Summit in Bali last November.

Vietnam's clash with China erupted after Chinese vessels interfered with Vietnamese drilling operations in what Hanoi claimed as its exclusive economic zone. The Vietnam case is a very unique example of modern history's vagaries. Vietnam succeeded in overcoming the devastating onslaught unleashed by the United States and achieved a strategic victory. Now a united Vietnam is embracing her former staunch enemy. War vessels of the US Seventh Fleet have been festively welcomed as they re-entered Cam Ranh Bay. The reason is obvious - Hanoi is hedging its bets against Vietnam's traditional adversary, China. However, simultaneously, Hanoi is maintaining a party-to-party back channel with Beijing, which is a brilliant application of Indonesia's concept of "dynamic equilibrium".

There are, at least, two approaches in viewing the un-Asean events in Phnom Penh. The benign approach would explain the failure to produce the traditional final communique at the end of the annual foreign ministers' meeting as a sign of Asean's maturity. Now, serious differences are not papered over.

The second approach views the events in Phnom Penh more realistically and as events that we should heed seriously. Phnom Penh, this view submits, is a preliminary skirmish that juxtaposes China and the US. We could see a noticeable upward trend of US rebalancing moves toward the Asia-Pacific region: starting with Secretary Hillary Clinton's statement at the Asian Regional Forum in Hanoi, July 2010, that heralded the US' commitment to uphold the principle of the freedom of the seas in the East Asia-Pacific region.

US President Barack Obama sounded the clarion call in Canberra when delivering a major speech before the parliament: "The United States is a Pacific nation ... and will remain a Pacific nation." Never mind that the speech was also meant as a celebration of the 60-year US-Australia Defence Pact, a product of the Cold War era.

Probably, to convince Asian countries that perhaps tend to be sceptical about Washington's seriousness, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta as the first speaker at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore early last month clearly outlined the US force restructuring as part of the defence rebalancing: 60 per cent of the US naval forces will be assigned in the Asia-Pacific theatre and 40 per cent in the Atlantic-European theatre.

Could it be that the Philippines, ever so receptive and appreciative of the US' rhetoric and movements, has become emboldened and decided to discard Asean's non-confrontational approach?

Is China now calling the US bluff, of course not openly or confrontationally, but true to Mao Zedong's doctrine of a people's war, just nibbling at the edges, using Asean as a safe chess board since Cambodia, as Chair, is a convenient chess piece?

If this diplomatic guerrilla war between Washington and Beijing continues unchecked it could be the beginning of the end for Asean. That is why we wholeheartedly support Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa's line of thinking as conveyed to the media. He worked hard up to the last minute to save what still could be saved. He said "Once the dust settles, we have to ask ourselves, what next? We need to be clear on what is Asean's interest in this issue. We [Asean] need to assert our centrality."

In order to safeguard Asean's centrality, we like to suggest that Marty persuade President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to embark on crisis diplomacy. He could convince the President that a direct meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh and President Benigno Aquino III in Manila would contain the crisis to its initial stage before spreading like cancer.

In his dinner speech on the eve of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Yudhoyono presented "An Architecture for Durable Peace in the Asia Pacific". He said, among other things, "As we strive to build a durable architecture for peace, we now have before us a strategic opportunity to usher in the geopolitics of cooperation". It is quite obvious that this opportunity should be immediately grasped before Asean falls into disarray.

The writer is co-chairman of the Indonesian Forum of (Retired) Ambassadors. He served as ambassador to Australia.