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DAMAGE CONTROL: It's vital to focus on the November summits first
ASEAN foreign ministers were reluctant history-makers last month. The 45th Asean Ministerial Meeting in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh failed -- for the first time in 45 years -- to issue a joint communiqué.
Although the chief diplomats of Asean had agreed on some 130 paragraphs to reflect the discussions and decisions made on a wide range of issues, disagreement over just five paragraphs of the draft communiqué prevented them from reaching a consensus. The contentious paragraphs concerned the territorial claim disputes and recent incidents in the South China Sea involving China and some members of Asean.
The "Asean way" favours consensus over contention. If not consensus, then they would at least amicably "agree to disagree". Open rancorous argument does not usually feature in Asean meetings. The preferred modus operandi is quiet diplomacy and behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Until last month's setback, Asean had been riding on a good streak in recent years. Its dialogue partners were slowly being talked round to the notion of "Asean centrality".
Through an increasing portfolio of platforms that includes Asean Plus Three, Asean Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit, it was slowly winning over critics as it steadily proved its growing ability to convene and facilitate substantial and sometimes difficult discussions.
During the 2008 Cyclone Nargis disaster, after several other countries, non-governmental organisations and multilateral organisations had tried and failed, Asean managed to persuade the government of Myanmar (also known as Burma) to allow humanitarian aid into the country to help its citizens.
The recent flurry of positive political developments in Myanmar, including democratic elections and the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, were even thought by some analysts to have been brought about, at least in part, by Asean's continued engagement with Myanmar over the years. These achievements and other initiatives like the Asean Charter -- a codification of the association's "norms, rules, and values", which came into force in December 2008 -- seemed to point to a credible regional organisation finally taking shape after more than four decades of efforts in dialogue, confidence-building and pragmatic economic collaboration.
Unfortunately, Asean has now been jolted by a rare open show of disunity among its members. The failure to issue a joint communique for the first time in 45 years has not just thrown the group into diplomatic disarray; it has called into question its fundamental solidarity.
Within days of the Phnom Penh meeting, Asean released a brief statement on the South China Sea issue. It was brought about largely by the diplomatic leadership and exertions of Indonesia's foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, and was a helpful immediate damage control measure. But there is no doubt that damage has been done to Asean's credibility.
If Asean is not to be derailed from its endeavour to build a community with a strong regional identity and unified sense of purpose, it must recover its balance quickly and find a way to navigate around the stumbling block currently in its way. With just three months to go, the success of the summits in November, including the East Asia Summit which United States President Barack Obama has announced he would attend, has become a genuine and urgent concern.
If the Asean Leaders Summit ends again in discord, it will cause great damage to the reputation of Asean and set it back by many years, possibly even decades. And so, in the immediate term, the year-end summits have to be the focus.
Of course, the issues at the heart of last month's quarrel cannot be resolved within the next few weeks. After the meetings in November, Asean will want to give these wounds an airing so that they will not fester and cause further damage to the regional body in the long run.
For now, though, all members would do well to find a way to forgive the harsh words exchanged. To do this, Asean members will need to hang on to the long-term, regional vision of an integrated, peaceful and prosperous Southeast Asia. With will and luck, they will be able to close ranks, find temporary solutions to accommodate their differences for now, and put up a united front in November.
Further down the road, Asean leaders are planning to declare, in 2015, the establishment of a united Asean community built on strong political, economic, and socio-cultural pillars. If this goal is met, the milestone would be a meaningful culmination of almost 50 years of intensive confidence-building and bonding efforts. So, between now and then, Asean needs to work hard to ensure that its members stay on board and on course for Asean Community 2015.
In the past, Asean may have been able to paper over the cracks. But, to cement the association into a tighter political and economic union, the members must fill the fissures with more substantial dialogue and action.
If Asean members are to have a common future that can withstand increasingly complex geopolitical and economic environments, forces and issues, they will have to display greater political will and diplomatic skills than they did last month.
This is an edited version of an article which first appeared on the Asia Foundation’s website