An emerging challenge to the ‘ASEAN way’.

The diplomatic impasse amongst ASEAN members in Phnom Penh raises doubts over the efficacy of the ‘ASEAN way’ in protecting smaller state’s sovereignty in the face of great power pressure.

For the first time in its 45 year history, the Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, failed to issue a joint communiqué following their annual meeting in July. After the meeting it emerged that a dispute between the Cambodian foreign minister and the foreign ministers of Vietnam and the Philippines, over whether to include details of discussions regarding opposing territorial claims between ASEAN members and China in the South China Sea, led to the impasse.

It has been suggested that Chinese officials effectively vetoed the inclusion of the discussion in the communiqué by exerting their influence with the Cambodian delegation. The refusal by the Cambodians to include these details meant that members could not agree on the contents of the joint communiqué, and thus one was never issued. This breakdown of cooperation between ASEAN members on such a basic level raises doubts over the ability of the ASEAN member states to maintain the political cohesion required to effectively increase their united bargaining power in relations with the region’s great powers.

The ASEAN approach seeks to secure the sovereignty of it members in the face of great powers by providing a united front of South East Asian states dedicated to the recognition of state sovereignty and peaceful conflict resolution, as enshrined in the ‘treaty of amity and cooperation’. ASEAN has implemented the strategy of ‘institutional balancing’, which involves countering pressures or threats from great powers by initiating, utilizing, and dominating multilateral institutions, in its attempt to secure the sovereignty and freedom of action of its smaller members. The efficacy of the focus on institutionalization and norm creation in ASEAN’s relations with China has been challenged by some realist political theorists.

They argue that by agreeing to non-binding conventions, and acting in accord with norms of non-interference in the short term, China is simply pursuing a longer term hegemonic strategy. By minimizing any conflict that could involve the United States more heavily in the region at a time when Chinese power is relatively weaker, and delaying confrontation over territorial and sovereignty issues in areas such as the South China Sea until it has a preponderance of power, China simply waits for a more advantageous time to stake its claims. The recent disruption of ASEAN proceedings through Chinese interjection appears to offer some empirical support to these realist arguments. By disrupting ASEAN members efforts to address territorial disputes on a multilateral level the Chinese government both delays the issue and attempts to force a bilateral approach in which it holds all of the economic and military bargaining chips.

by Stuart Rollo

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