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The Bali challenge

Disputes involving member countries pose a big test for ASEAN

Written by Rahul Mishra |
July 22, 2011 12:29:34 am

Both ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) enthusiasts and cynics seem to be having sleepless nights as the eight-day-long congregation continues in Nusa Dua,Bali,Indonesia. The meeting,which will conclude on July 23,has in its itinerary the 44th ASEAN Ministers’ Meeting,Post-Ministerial Conference and the 18th ASEAN Regional Forum meeting among other things. A total of 27 countries,including the US,Russia,China and India,are participating. The Thai representative,however,is missing in action,as the new foreign minister in Yingluck Shinawatra’s cabinet has not yet been appointed.

Many believe this is a tough patch for ASEAN,hitherto considered the most successful multilateral organisation in the developing world. On test now is whether ASEAN is gritty enough to face new challenges head on,and how it will respond to numerous challenges posed lately to its integral values,identity and prevailing norms.

This year has been particularly crucial to ASEAN for a variety of reasons. Two member countries,Thailand and Cambodia are fighting in a border dispute. The case is also sub-judice at The Hague. Although there have been several instances of border disputes between ASEAN member countries,this protracted conflict has resulted in more than 100 causalities,as claimed. The Ligitan and Sipadan islands dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia,Pedra Branca between Malaysia and Singapore,Sabah between Malaysia and the Philippines didn’t involve such levels of conflict.

Thailand has a history of border conflicts as it got entangled in a dispute with Laos in 1987-88,and with Myanmar in 2001. This time,however,Thailand’s alleged use of cluster munitions along the border has invited criticism. Thailand is also not agreeable to any kind of mediation. Though the current chair of ASEAN,Indonesia,is keen to mediate,there has not been much headway,exposing ASEAN’s weakness as an organisation. Will this serve as an impetus for ASEAN to strengthen its conflict prevention,conflict management and conflict resolution capabilities?

Another critical challenge to ASEAN is the South China Sea issue that has witnessed escalated tensions,repeated acts of mutual provocation and skirmishes between China and Vietnam and the Philippines. Both ASEAN member countries along with Japan have raised an alarm on China’s rising assertion in the area,holding that it violates the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in South China Sea. Of late,the US has also registered its protest on Chinese acts of provocation in the South China Sea. However,at the moment,ASEAN does not seem to have the mechanism to deal adequately with such a situation.

An economically and politically de-railed Myanmar,with its widely questioned and discredited recent elections,has been a perennial dilemma for ASEAN. Situating Myanmar in ASEAN has always been a tough call for its founding members. Nevertheless,ASEAN has all along tried to use its non-intervention tactics to avoid questions of concern coming from the international community. China and India face similar questions as both maintain cordial relations with the ruling junta owing to their own reasons. Amongst the participants,the US,in particular,has not been kindly disposed towards to the Myanmar junta,and wants India and ASEAN to take proactive measures to ensure a democratic transition. US President Barack Obama’s address to Parliament during his India visit strongly pointed to that. However,ASEAN and India’s “Catch-22” situation on Myanmar doesn’t seem likely to be resolved any time soon.

So far,ASEAN has proved its worth in manifesting a flexible yet astonishing identity of Southeast Asian nations as a unit. However,resolving the ongoing disputes or arriving at an amicable final solution seems a tightrope walk. This is important in the light of the fact that while expectations of ASEAN’s proactive role are high,ASEAN would not like to let go of its cherished “non-intervention” norms or move away from “ASEAN centrality” to settle the disputes. Nonetheless,how ASEAN deals with such challenges would,to a great extent,determine its role in the swiftly changing regional political and security dynamics.

The writer is a visiting fellow at the National University of Singapore;

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