Last month's Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit held in Phnom Penh opened with high expectations and closed with an ambivalence that has cast new doubts on the 10-member grouping's common destiny.
While the controversy over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea issue was the most obvious point of tension, the lack of a common policy on the implementation of a Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) and disagreements on the construction of upstream dams on the Mekong river underscored the association's rising divisions.
Earlier, many observers expected ASEAN to produce a binding code of conduct for the South China Sea during Cambodia's chairmanship of the grouping, 10 years after the signing by ASEAN and China's foreign ministers of the non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The consensus broke down during the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) held in Phnom Penh in July, with the grouping failing to agree on a joint communique for the first time in 45 years due to dissension on the South China Sea.
Many analysts suspected China had put pressure on Cambodia to refrain from mentioning the issue in the communique, despite strong lobbying from the Philippines and Vietnam for its inclusion. The subsequent announcement on July 20 of a six-point principle on the South China Sea made by Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, with consensus on the document promoted by regional giant Indonesia, was viewed at the time as a stopgap measure meant to paper over deep differences on the issue.
At last month's United Nations General Assembly in New York, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario attempted in a speech to win global support for his country's rule of law position vis-a-vis China over the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Manila's wish to internationalize the issue was clear well before the beginning of last month's ASEAN summit, which was attended by global leaders, including US President Barack Obama.
On the eve of the summit, despite China's warning that the South China Sea issue should not overshadow the event, ASEAN members said they were ready for formal talks with their bigger neighbor, even though they were still debating internally their own version of a maritime code. Later on the same day, however, Cambodian foreign ministry official Kao Kim Hourn said that Southeast Asian leaders "had decided that they will not internationalize the South China Sea from now on".
Philippine President Benigno Aquino strongly rebuked the Cambodian statement, saying no such agreement had been reached. The competing statements underscored the rising pressures on ASEAN unity and the grouping's inability to mediate members' often conflicting national interests.
A photo released by Xinhua, the official Chinese government media, on November 22 showing a smiling Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen inaugurating a China-funded national road in Prey Veng province in southeastern Cambodia, demonstrated to some at the summit Beijing's use of bilateral aid to push its wider regional ambitions.
Whether the situation changes after Cambodia relinquishes the chairmanship at the end of this year is still a wildcard. In 2013, Brunei, which also has a contested stake in the South China Sea, will take up ASEAN's rotational leadership. Meanwhile, ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, a Thai national who many believe has notched several diplomatic successes during his five-year tenure, will step down at the end of 2012. Thailand does not have a stake in the South China Sea and has attempted to play a mediating role in the conflict.
ASEAN's next Secretary General, Vietnamese diplomat Le Luong Minh, is an experienced diplomat with distinguished service at the United Nations. He will need to contend with not only the territorial disputes in which his country is directly involved but challenges as diverse as Myanmar's democratic transition, the joint promotion of human rights as established by the AHRD and rising regional tensions caused by the construction of dams in Laos that threaten to undermine the environment and livelihoods of riparian villagers in downstream countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam.
The latter two issues pose serious threats to future ASEAN unity. After the grouping's inauguration of the Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights in 2009, ASEAN's 10 members adopted the AHRD. However, the AHRD was strongly criticized by regional and international organizations as a paper tiger for excluding civil society organizations from the drafting process and deferring to "regional and national contexts" in the mechanism's implementation.
"There is no consensus on what to do after the 10 leaders adopted the AHRD," said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, who recently retired from the ASEAN Secretariat. "Ideally the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) should use the AHRD as the basis for drafting the ASEAN Convention on Human Rights."
Some believe the forced relocation of thousands of Lao villagers to make way for new hydropower projects should be taken up by ASEAN's new human-rights body. That seems unlikely though considering the emphasis individual countries place on ramping up power generation and infrastructure development, particularly with the implementation of a new ASEAN economic community looming on the horizon in 2015.
"ASEAN is moving at its own pace to form an ASEAN Community by 2015 but human rights is an issue that has the potential to be divisive," said Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor from the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra. He believes that while Cambodia's chairmanship has accentuated differences inside the association, there is little risk that the grouping dissolves.
Indeed, the Lao government recently resumed construction of the controversial, Thailand-backed Xayaburi Dam project without regional consensus and above strong complaints from Cambodia and Vietnam. Under the 1995 Mekong Agreement, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam agreed to cooperate to "optimize the multiple-use and mutual benefits" of water resources and to "minimize the harmful effects that might result from natural occurrences and man-made activities".
As the Mekong River Commission's member countries have not formally agreed to build the project, Laos has been accused of violating the non-binding consensus reached among ASEAN members. Moreover, the decision to go ahead with the Xayaburi dam will apparently pave the way for the construction of a second dam proposed for the Mekong River in Laos and potentially stoke new ASEAN-China tensions.
Designed by Chinese developer Datang Overseas Investment Co Ltd, the Pak Beng dam was first envisioned in a memorandum of understanding signed between the Lao and Chinese governments in August 2007 and civil society groups say will have adverse downstream impacts on the environment and livelihoods.
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