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ASEAN at 50: Uncertain times call for smart diplomacy

Personal leadership must replace bureaucratic inertia to achieve success

| Vietnam
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As the Association of Southeast Asian Nations celebrates its 50th anniversary, the complexity of the internal and external environment is severely testing its approach to cooperative security that rests, above all, on preserving the sovereignty of each of the 10 member states. Geopolitical shifts have increased pressure on ASEAN from Western powers to contain China's rise by reinforcing what Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop recently called an "international rules-based order" against "the might is right doctrine of bygone eras."

But for a region that has a long history of safeguarding sovereignty by bending and accommodating, rather than making hard-and-fast rules or standing on principle, ASEAN is struggling to find a rules-based formula that works -- particularly when it comes to China.

The mid-March announcement by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that Beijing had completed a first draft of a code of conduct for the South China Sea took observers by surprise. ASEAN diplomats have been negotiating with China for over a decade on a code to govern behavior in the contested waters. Until very recently, they had only produced a graded list of topics ranging from the simple to the sensitive.

Most likely the draft that Wang referred to is a framework consisting of a preamble, an operational section and concluding clauses. How many of the topics in the operational section have been fleshed out in detail is unclear. More importantly, whether China is willing to submit to a code that is formally binding remains the biggest question of all.

Agreeing a code of conduct for the South China Sea is ASEAN's thorniest diplomatic challenge as it seeks to impose rules on a China that, in the words of Chinese President Xi Jinping now seeks to "guide the international community to create a more just and rational new international order."

There are also questions surrounding the effectiveness of ASEAN as a mechanism to safeguard Southeast Asia's internal peace and security. At first glance, it seems that the bedrock principle of non-interference has served ASEAN well. Despite a protracted history of civil wars and subregional conflicts from Myanmar to the Philippines, along with numerous boundary and territorial disputes and periodic political spats between member states, there has been no war between any Southeast Asian nations since the end of the Indochina conflict in the mid-1970s.

That is an admirable record, one that former Singapore diplomat Kishore Mahbubani believes merits a Nobel Peace Prize for ASEAN. Durable peace and prosperity has supported the region's stability. He pointed out in a recent article that in 1970, the combined gross national product of ASEAN was $95 billion and now it is about $2.5 trillion, while total trade has gone up 91 times since 1970.

Fair enough. But the current worry in Southeast Asia is whether ASEAN can continue to act as it always has done, which Mahbubani described as taking two steps forward, one step back and then one step sideways "Like a crab. It seems to be going around in circles," he wrote.

Today's security challenges move easily across borders. The threat of religious extremism is tearing apart Buddhist and Muslim communities in parts of Myanmar, which is inflaming religious tensions in predominantly Buddhist Thailand and neighboring majority-Muslim Malaysia. Refugees and migrant workers cross the region through underground smuggling rings and there is no concerted regional action to prevent their exploitation and physical abuse.

No chemistry

ASEAN leaders are not so well acquainted with each other for these issues to be ironed out at the highest level. Democracy has prospered, although unevenly. Heads of government and ministers come and go frequently in most of the region's governments. Compared with the founding fathers of ASEAN, they barely know each other, and their constituents more easily influence them.

When ASEAN was established in 1967, the leaders of the founding five member states often met informally. Their foreign ministers played golf together and there was an understanding of each other's concerns. But today's ASEAN summits are elaborately staged, less intimate affairs and attended by the leaders of larger outside powers who come to press their own goals.

All this has begun to weigh on ASEAN's effectiveness and has reduced it to a sum of its parts. Myanmar is a case in point.

In 2008, when a powerful cyclone hit the country and left nearly 140,000 dead, then ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan used an ASEAN agreement on disaster management and emergency response to mobilize a humanitarian taskforce comprising officials and nongovernmental organizations from member states. This ASEAN-led coordinating mechanism subsequently worked on the ground with Myanmar's military-led government to facilitate effective aid distribution.

Fast forward to 2017 and the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in the country's Rakhine State, where tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been forced from their homes due to communal violence that first erupted in 2012. With up to 140,000 people displaced, many of them fleeing in rickety boats to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, there has been no effective regional response.

ASEAN was woefully slow to respond in 2015, when an estimated 25,000 Rohingya first took to boats, many losing their lives at sea or falling prey to human traffickers. Thailand squabbled with Malaysia and other member states over how best to respond, and competing regional initiatives were launched. In the end, it fell to Indonesia to shape an awkward consensus.

After fresh violence erupted in northern Rakhine in October 2016, triggering another refugee wave, ASEAN's response was again mute. So Malaysia organized a special meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and launched a scathing attack on the Myanmar government.

Signs of disunity

Similar dissension and discord has marked ASEAN's efforts to manage the security challenge in the South China Sea. After an international tribunal in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in its dispute over China's sweeping territorial claims last July, a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers failed to issue an agreed statement after their annual meeting a few weeks later.

In ASEAN's defense, pressure from both China and the U.S. to take sides in the maritime dispute has been immense. China has used a mix of financial carrots and heavy diplomatic sticks to persuade member states, while the U.S tried to maximize its influence using a pan-Asian trade deal and a military pivot away from the Middle East and back to Asia.

In the face of mounting disunity in ASEAN, it has fallen to the group's largest state, Indonesia, to try and restore regional consensus. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has been particularly effective. In late 2016, Retno flew into Myanmar for a private dinner with Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Shortly afterward, Suu Kyi agreed to host an ASEAN ministerial retreat meeting.

According to former ASEAN Secretary General Surin, convening foreign ministers on such a delicate issue in the country concerned was unprecedented.

Retno also helped stitch together a trilateral defense cooperation agreement among Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines to combat piracy and kidnappings in the Sulu Sea.

The success of these initiatives speaks to the need for more active diplomacy among ASEAN member states and their leaders. However, it will be hard for ASEAN to find what Julie Bishop calls a "moral voice" without deploying more effective, persuasive diplomacy. There are lessons to learn from the past.

In the mid-1980s, ASEAN played a central role in bringing peace to Cambodia. The process involved a high level of cooperation and concord among ASEAN officials and it succeeded in great part because of the personal diplomacy of one of the region's greatest diplomats, then Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas.

ASEAN turns 50 this year. To remain relevant and effective in the face of complex regional and global challenges, the organization needs to do more than send poorly paid and overworked officials to endless meetings to monitor the progress of ASEAN's political, economic and socio-cultural sectoral blueprints, or to identify cross-cutting ties between them. ASEAN needs smart, targeted diplomacy and the flexibility to act decisively and above all persuasively.

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. A former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, his new book: "Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia" will be published in June.

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