Is ASEAN biting off more than it can chew?

Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation (Thailand)Publication Date : 05-04-2010

Judging from the number of countries that want to accede to Asean's 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), one can easily conclude that the 43-year-old grouping is gaining political clout in the international community. Altogether 27 countries, including the United States, have signed on to the regional code of conduct, which denounces the use of force and any attempt to interfere with domestic politics.

More countries are on the waiting list. Canada, the last Asean dialogue partner that has yet to sign the TAC, has recently begun negotiations with Asean for possible accession by the end of this year.

The European Union signed the protocol for TAC accession last year pending the ratification of the Third Protocol by all signatories. This instrument permits international organisations whose members are only sovereign states to join. Within the Asean inner circle, it is an open secret that the ratification process will take months, if not years, to complete.

The First Protocol in 1987 enabled Papua New Guinea, the first country outside Southeast Asia, to sign the TAC, followed by the Second Protocol in 1988 that has opened the present floodgate for major powers to accede. Under the protocol, only the Asean High Contracting Parties can identify and consent to the accession of those non-Southeast Asian countries.

Last year, Asean made a U-turn after agreeing to include Turkey in the TAC community. Indonesia strongly opposed Ankara's diplomatic move at this juncture, fearing the negative consequences that could impact on Asean as a whole.

Turkey's signing on, if it went as planned last year, would allow Ankara the right to block the EU's accession to the TAC, as it would be a party to the Third Protocol. Deep down, Indonesia fears that Turkey might use the TAC to increase its bargaining power for the latter's effort to join the EU, which has hit a snag.

Is Asean biting off more than it can chew? Obviously, that is the general sentiment prevailing at all echelons of Asean officialdom, even though they would never admit it. At the Asean Summit in Hanoi this Thursday and Friday, Asean leaders will approve guidelines for the TAC that will put the brakes on TAC accession.

One of the key elements is the principle of a "flexible moratorium" placed on future membership. Truth be told, if the EU and Canada joined the TAC, that would leave Afghanistan, Bhutan and Nepal as the only remaining countries not on board the regional code of conduct.

Asean needs to contemplate now on the TAC's future and relevance. As signatories increase, Asean is gradually losing control. Turkey's accession was a case in point.

At the same time, granted the increased global connectivity and shared universal values, norms and standards, several principles in the TAC could be the subject of further discussion and reviews. Otherwise, the 34-year-old regional code of conduct could be a stumbling bloc for Asean's desire to promote its global role in economic or financial, political or security as well as socio-cultural matters.

Furthermore, just look at the dilemma confronting the current Asean chair, Vietnam, in handling the engagement between the Asean leaders and the representatives of civil-society organisations (CSOs). Despite the positive pledge made last February at the 14th Asean summit in Cha-am by the Vietnamese leader, President Nguyen Minh Triet, who welcomed the idea of putting the interface into the Asean framework, the host eventually decided last month at the senior official meeting in Ho Chi Minh City to put on hold the whole experiment with CSOs.

The interface, which was held twice when Thailand was the chair, revealed the lack of trust on both sides. The CSO representatives viewed the Asean leaders as dictators wanting to suppress their people's role and voices, while the leaders thought the non-governmental stakeholders were troublemakers and wanted to embarrass them. Over half of the Asean leaders did not attend the second interface in October.

It is interesting to note that the host has scheduled a meeting between the Asean leaders and the representatives of the Asean Inter-parliamentary Organisation, one of the estimated 200 non-governmental organisations recognised by Asean, ahead of the opening ceremony. As such, the Vietnamese-style "interface" between both sides at the summit would be an informal gathering for 15 minutes, as it is not placed in between the opening and closing ceremonies.

Indeed, Vietnam has rather active community-based organisations as well as professional groups that could contribute to the ongoing process of transforming Asean into a people-centred grouping.

With the proper encouragement of other new members such as Laos and Cambodia, Vietnam could have proceeded in that direction. Earlier discussions among representatives of Asean-based civil-society groups and Vietnam's counterparts yielded encouraging results. Unfortunately, they had no influence on the decision-making.

Furthermore, Asean as a whole has failed to respect the voices of the CSOs and the grass roots. During the inaugural meeting of the Asean Intergovern-mental Commission for Human Rights in Jakarta last week, Asean civil groups were unable to present cases of human-rights violations to the commission. The voices from civil-society groups sounded at times loud and fierce but the AICHR must find ways to take up these issues in the future, as they are real and matters of urgency.

For instance, victims comprising wives and relatives of the Maguindanao massacre in the Philippines as well as those senior citizens who suffered from the past impunity in Indonesia were at the Asean Secretariat to present their cases.

It could have been a better start for the AICHR. Last week's failure has already discredited the AICHR, which is the principle organisation promoting and protecting human rights in Asean. Certainly, the AICHR has a limited mandate, but rejecting appeals directly from the victims is deplorable.

The AICHR plans to complete the terms of procedure for approval by the Asean foreign ministers in July. It is imperative that the AICHR takes into consideration the CSOs' views and contributions. Obviously, some of their recommendations could be too progressive, but there are practical elements as well. As a rule-based organisation, Asean would become irrelevant if its members continued to ignore the people's voices and outcries over injustice.

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Is China failing SE Asia’s test?

With all the bombast surrounding the 60th anniversary of China-Indonesia relations in the last few months, many seem unaware of recent developments in the South China Sea. In the last fortnight, details have emerged regarding the Chinese Navy’s growing assertiveness and naval projection capability in the region.

According to a recent report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a flotilla of six ships from the North Sea Fleet sailed on March 18 on a “long-distance training exercise” in the vicinity of the Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands — and reportedly near the Malacca Strait as well.

In mid-April, the Japanese media reported a second taskforce of at least 10 ships from the East Sea fleet (including destroyers and frigates) sailed through the Miyako strait, stopped east of Taiwan,
and conducted anti-submarine warfare exercises.

The group apparently stopped when Vietnamese fishermen surrounding Chinese fishing patrols in the South China Sea — which they might have been sent to rescue — withdrew from the area.

The North Sea Fleet Commander was quoted saying that “China needed to protect its maritime territorial integrity through long-distance naval projection.”

These developments signify China’s growing naval capability — and its intention of possibly using them in territorial disputes. After all, studies have shown that while Chinese leaders clearly view China as a defensive power, Beijing has been willing to use “calibrated force” in the past, especially when it comes to territorial disputes.

It should be noted however, China resolved most of its border issues peacefully (17 out of 23 disputes since 1949) — which Chinese leaders believe is necessary in order to focus on economic development and to show the world that they could be a responsible world leader.

Although, given the current complexities surrounding China’s defense policy-making, it remains difficult to fully assess under what conditions would China today use force to defend what it sees as its “undisputed sovereignty”.

The March and April training exercise also demonstrate the Navy’s ability to organize and conduct distant operations with multiple platforms and the growing integrative capabilities of its three fleets.

This allowed the Navy for the first time to move beyond the “First Island Chain” (a term used to describe the line formed by the Aleutians, the Kuriles, Japan, the Ryukyus, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Borneo) — which will have huge strategic ramifications for the regional balance of power in the coming years.

Regional expert Michael Auslin argued that this is part of China’s new “far sea defense” strategy — a departure from its traditional “Offshore Defense” — that may signal its intention to play “an expanded role in the region”.

China’s decision in December 2008 to join the international anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden, its Navy’s continued expansion, and the 2009 USS Impeccable incident, seem to add further weight to this argument.

It would be difficult therefore for Southeast Asian countries to positively welcome China’s growing naval assertiveness. Especially with the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area already causing domestic discontents within some member states.

Thus, while the growing economic interdependence between ASEAN and China has been a positive force in dissuading regional fears — which Beijing’s diplomatic “charm offensive” also helped facilitate — the ultimate litmus test of China-Southeast Asia’s mature relations lies in the South China Sea.

This decades-old dispute (involving Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, and China) is critical not just over sovereignty, but it also entangles marine and energy resources with the geo-strategic significance of the waterways controlling the Sea Lanes of Communication between the Pacific and Indian oceans.

For Indonesia, the waters surrounding the Natuna islands are also at stake here.

Given these interests, it would be counter-productive for any disputant country to use, or threaten to use, military force to resolve the dispute.

However, as the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea was not legally binding, and existing mechanisms of dialogue avoid “tough questions”, the strategic trust between Southeast Asia and China is resting on shaky grounds.

For one thing, China’s rapid naval modernization, its aggressive and seemingly insatiable drive for energy sources, and its seemingly tough stance when it comes territorial disputes, makes it harder to dissuade regional fears in the long run.

For another, the political and economic gap within Southeast Asia, and the differing strategic interests of its key member states in handling China, has made it hard for ASEAN to present a unified front in assisting its member states to deal with the South China Sea dispute.

More importantly however, Southeast Asian countries need to understand China’s fear that compromising on the South China Sea may send the wrong signal to Taiwan and Tibet, while its growing energy demands and huge dependence on the Malacca Strait necessitates the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to consider military options to secure them.

China on the other hand also needs to understand why using military force in any fashion cannot
be peacefully understood by Southeast Asia.

And why diplomatic and economic “charm offensive” alone will not suffice to sustain long-term strategic trust in a growing region where nationalism and sovereignty remains a political trump card.

This of course is easier said than done. But avoiding the tough questions simply means postponing the inevitable.

The writer is a researcher with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta, and currently an ASC fellow at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

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Bring the diplomats in, send the warriors out

by Bantarto Bandoro Source: The Jakarta Post
In a vote of 14-0, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) approved Resolution 1860 calling for an immediate cease-fire to the Gaza conflict. The United States abstained from voting, presumably

because the resolution didn't affect its current position very much.

The cease-fire resolution, drafted by Britain and backed by the United States and France - all veto-wielding members of the UNSC - with amendments by key Arab negotiators including the foreign ministers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and Qatar, came out after nearly a week of intensive diplomatic moves by the international community to de-escalate, if not to end, the Gaza crisis which has claimed more than 800 Palestinian lives.

From a moral perspective, it is in the interest of all to see the war end soon. But many question the resolution's practicality as the warring parties continue to resist because the resolution does not represent - and even undermines - their interests.

A student of mine asked whether there is a difference between the 2006 Israeli bombardment of Southern Lebanon and the current war in Gaza.

My answer is partly no. In both cases the wars have dragged world diplomats to the UNSC to issue cease-fire resolutions.

Both cases have also showed the extent to which the prospects for a Middle East deal seem minuscule. But there is a way out, and both sides know what they must do. This is where the strategic role of the diplomats enters the picture.

Israel and Hamas have justified their military actions on the basis of self-defense. Most sadly and internationally condemned, however, is that the Israelis' actions have claimed the lives of many innocent Palestinian civilians. This has led the international community to launch a massive protest.

Ways to end the fighting include a long-term political solution, the deployment of international forces and an initial cease-fire. At the diplomatic level, countries inside as well as outside the Middle East region seem to be in agreement that the war in Gaza should end.

The post-UNSC Resolution 1860 will eventually see whether the diplomats will be able to significantly influence theto adhere to the initial cease-fire resolution and uphold the truce.

Megaphone diplomacy was revealed when president Yudhoyono talked on the phone over the weekend with France's president Nicolas Sarkozy - the current president of the UNSCboth of whom see the need to end the war in Gaza.

In this war, the main argument is perhaps not when and how cease-fire Resolution 1860 should be employed, but whether the resolution serves and protects their respective interests.

Here the job of the diplomats is to convince the "warriors" that a cease-fire would only be the beginning andshould prescribe to dialog over acts of terror.

We see that every political leader and diplomat wants to be seenif not to be deserved - as a major player in what one may call the cease-fire game.

The appearance of peacemaking suggests international power and prestige and is accompanied by their endless meetings.

Politicians and diplomats thrive on the process, and it is politically correct to talk about ending the "suffering of the Palestinians". As a result, the field has become even more crowded, with the UN Secretary-General, Turkey, Russia, numerous European nations, Qatar, Egyptfar more quietly - the outgoing Bush administration completing the group.

It is obvious that no war ends without a cessation of hostilities.

It is also true to say that war is a momentary event and there is a time when the warring parties are ready to enter a stage when they - with an intermediary perhapswill go to the negotiating table.

Representatives of the Palestinian Fatah and Hamas were in Cairo to discuss the crisis. But beyond this stage, does one expect Hamas and Israel to abandon their war objectives?

On the one hand, the level of trust, at least at the moment, between Israel and Hamas is nonexistent. Diplomats, on the other hand, are aware that the gap between public relations and the substance of the UNSC Resolution 1860 that hopefully will lead to an end of the conflict is seemingly huge.

The initial cease-fire is now in place to avert a larger war in the Middle East. But the statements made by the officials of Hamas and Israel about Resolution 1860 are a clear indication of their unwillingness to abandon their strategy of a much more open war.

It is only a matter of time when Iran and Syria, a long-time patron of the Hamas, will become involved in the crisis.

If Israel does continue its military operations until after the inauguration of Barack Obama as the next US president, then it will be time for the United States to exert even stronger pressure on Israel.

Diplomats, particularly from those countries considered to be stakeholders in the Gaza crisis, will presumably not take a single minute to stretch their legs given the warnings from Israel and Hamas of their next war strategy.

They must be sure that, in spite of strong resistance from the Israelis and Hamas, the resolution will lead to a durable truce in the Gaza Strip, or we will see that a premature end will simply serve as the beginning point for the next and expanded round of fighting due to the continued tension and skepticism on both sides. For a cease-fire to be successful, the diplomats should be weaving a net of trust among the "warriors" and only then can the diplomats further proceed with future peace proposals.

The writer is a lecturer in the International Relations Postgraduate Studies Program at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta.

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