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Opinion & Analysis
POSTED | 9:42 AM | 20-06-2016

China splits a leaderless, rudderless ASEAN

-- By P N Balji

The way China split ASEAN at a dramatic meeting in Kunming last week has exposed a major vacuum that has plagued the regional group for a while.

ASEAN’s strongest link is now its weakest link. It doesn’t have a country or politician to provide strong moral and ideological leadership to get a group of 10 countries at different stages of economic, political and social development into speaking with one voice.

How different things were when the regional grouping came into being with just five members in 1967. Then, ASEAN had a unity of purpose: to make sure that the vacuum left behind by the US military withdrawal from South Vietnam would not be exploited by a communist North Vietnam.

Indonesia’s Adam Malik, Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam and others took the fight to the UN arguing the case to punish a united Vietnam that marched into Cambodia with impunity.

ASEAN’s fear was that if Vietnam was allowed to get away with its unlawful expansion, it would embolden its military to push south and create a Southeast Asia that became a vassal of the communists.

It was a time when the Domino Theory was being pushed by diplomats and academics to stop the communist tide. By working behind the scenes and openly, ASEAN politicians and diplomats got cracking by denying Vietnam a moral victory in the UN.

Last week’s Kunming meeting showed ASEAN at its vulnerable worst with China using big money politics, convincing Laos and Cambodia to split ASEAN.

There was no joint statement. Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who was co-chair of that meeting, did not sit down with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to talk to the media and Malaysia added to the drama by issuing an ASEAN statement and then retracting it.

It seems Laos, the chairman of ASEAN this time round, was against the proposed ASEAN joint statement expressing serious concern over China’s adventures in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea has become a big irritant in relations with China. China says the sea belongs to them but the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam have staked their claims, with Manila taking China to the international court in The Hague.

China’s intentions to drive a wedge in ASEAN are not new. In 2012, ASEAN foreign ministers ended their annual meeting when China talked chairman Cambodia into keeping the South China Sea off the table.

With most of the other members disagreeing, the customary joint statement was not issued – the first time this has happened in ASEAN’s 45-year history.

China is opening another beach head with Timor Leste, which is likely to be admitted into the ASEAN fold soon. China was the first one to recognize the former Indonesian state when it gained independence in 2002 and has poured money into big development projects there.

Resetting the ASEAN leadership button looks unlikely as Indonesia, the natural leader because of its size, is still trying to sort out the turmoil left behind by strongman Suharto’s downfall. And Singapore, whose diplomatic dance with the important players on the world stage makes it a good choice for ASEAN leadership, is viewed with suspicion by its neighbours.

Does all this mean ASEAN will continue its rudderless ride into the stormy waters of the South China Sea? Or will it wait for the problem to solve itself?

Both scenarios can only further weaken the regional grouping. The other possibility is for the regional bloc to abandon its long-held principle of reaching a consensus in its decision-making.

With the next ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ huddle looming in the background and with China not in the mood to compromise, ASEAN might have no choice but to move towards a view that the majority should not be held to ransom by the minority.

That is the stark reality facing a grouping that has become an important player in global affairs.

P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who is the former chief editor of TODAY newspaper, and a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.

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