Hopes for calmer times under this year’s new management
EVEN the most ardent supporters of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) concede that last year was a pretty disastrous one for the ten-country grouping. Replacing the region’s usual mild-mannered consensus was an unprecedented eruption of rowing and bickering, all on very public and humiliating display at its summit meetings.
The root of it all was the dispute over China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Cambodia, closest to China in the grouping and the ASEAN chairman in 2012, tried to press its ally’s claims. This provoked a heated reaction from some of ASEAN’s own members, notably Vietnam and the Philippines, with claims of their own. For several weeks last year the Philippine navy was involved in a tense stand-off with Chinese ships near the disputed Scarborough shoal.
All the politicking over the South China Sea has diverted political energy from ASEAN’s most pressing internal task, which is to form a new EU-like economic community by 2015. At the same time, the United States last year deepened its strategic ties with Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia as part of an “Asia pivot”. All this has stoked fears that, in an era of rising great-power rivalry, ASEAN might not be able to stick together.
Getting ASEAN back on track will be hard, and much of the burden for doing so now falls on tiny Brunei. The oil-rich sultanate, a dot on the coast of Borneo, is home to just 400,000 out of ASEAN’s population of 600m. Brunei has taken over ASEAN’s annual rotating chairmanship from Cambodia and will host this year’s summits. At the same time, the organisation has acquired a new secretary-general. Le Luong Minh, a Vietnamese former diplomat, has succeeded Thailand’s Surin Pitsuwan.
That the baton should pass to ASEAN’s smallest member at this moment of almost existential crisis has caused concern for some. Brunei has only 30-odd people working on the ASEAN brief in its foreign ministry. And next year it will be followed as chairman by the wholly untested and still controversial Myanmar.
Yet Lim Jock Seng, Brunei’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, argues that these anxieties are misplaced. For a start, apparent shortcomings can be turned to ASEAN’s advantage. Brunei may be small, he says, but that also makes the country relatively unthreatening, especially to China. Had the chair passed to Vietnam or the Philippines at this point, all hell might have broken loose. Although Brunei is also a country with an interest in the South China Sea that China contests, its claim is the smallest—just one submerged reef. Last, being extremely rich puts Brunei in the happy position of being free of a financial reason to kowtow to China—or anyone for that matter. That was Cambodia’s undoing last year, and could yet be Myanmar’s next.
Mr Lim believes that Brunei’s relative obscurity should help it practise the “quiet diplomacy” that everyone agrees is needed to repair the breach with China. He has already been to Beijing to talk to Chinese officials and says that both sides agree that the ASEAN-China relationship is “bigger than the South China Sea issue”. Opportunities for joint economic development ought really to trump it.
The main sticking-point is that although ASEAN is keen to implement a “code of conduct” covering the South China Sea disputes, China refuses to acknowledge a collective position. Instead, it prefers bilateral negotiations with each claimant country. Mr Lim, however, hopes to start talks with China on the code of conduct and to have something “concrete that we can sign” by the main ASEAN summit in October. If so, that would be a coup, especially if China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, does not signal a softer line in the meantime.
Vietnam’s Mr Minh will have much to do as secretary-general. His country is overtly suspicious of Chinese intentions, and he might face pressure to tilt the group further against China. Until now, however, he has been impeccably diplomatic. He will probably focus on completing the ASEAN economic community, which is exactly what most of ASEAN wants him to do—so long as Brunei can successfully steer the grouping away from the diplomatic reefs of the South China Sea.
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