Slowly, Asean Heads Toward More Political Integration

Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, left, and other leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations join their hands for a group photo section during the 22nd ASEAN Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, Thursday, April 25, 2013. (AP)

Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, left, and other leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations join their hands for a group photo section during the 22nd ASEAN Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, Thursday, April 25, 2013. (AP)

Original: Sophat Soeung, VOA Khmer, June 29, 2013

WASHINGTON — Ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are meeting this week in Brunei to discuss the region’s major security issues.

Analysts at a security conference in Washington earlier this month said such issues present a test for the grouping’s ability to move to a greater level of political integration by the end of 2015.

After Cambodia’s divisive chairmanship of Asean last year, analysts say they are cautiously optimistic that Asean is in the process of achieving a degree of integration in the next two years.

Questions over Asean’s ability to come together on security issues and political issues were among those asked by experts and observers during a South China Sea conference held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington earlier this month.

The South China Sea, a major international shipping lane where several Asean states have claims against China, is a major regional concern. But Asean’s 10 members will face many more challenges as it seeks to integrate, analysts say.

Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra, told VOA Khmer that Asean’s political and strategic cooperation is a “work in progress.”

“As 2015 approaches, I think we will see incremental progress on the basis of consensus,” he said. “If there is anybody out there that is not comfortable, they won’t proceed.”

By the end of 2015, Asean aims to achieve a much higher degree of political, security, and cultural integration between its 10 members. But while the less sensitive economic integration appears to be on track, many analysts question whether a more unified political community is possible.

Conflicts between Asean members on issues like territorial disputes and democratization remain major obstacles.

Just last July during the Asean Regional Forum, chaired by Cambodia in Phnom Penh, ministers for the first time in the group’s history could not issue a joint statement because of mistrust and disagreement over the South China Sea.

Greg Poling, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Southeast Asia program in Washington, says that the main problem is that Asean is an organization founded on principles of non-interference and protection of sovereignty. That leaves the political community vaguely defined.

“I mean there’s doubt that if you don’t at least get the Aseans themselves into some kind of consensus, not necessarily on where the dispute should end but how to manage it, then you are going to have a certain level of strategic mistrust,” he said.

Trust among Asean members was seriously eroded last year when Cambodia was seen as siding with China on the sea dispute. The Philippines in particular was unhappy with Cambodia’s handling of the issues. This led to a number of subsequent diplomatic spats well into Asean’s last major summit in November 2012.

Henry Bensurto, Jr., former secretary general of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs’ maritime commission, tells VOA Khmer that the Philippines and Cambodia are now on good terms again and that such disagreements are just part of the integration process.

“I think this was a lesson learned by everybody, and this year Asean has taken a different direction in terms of discussing the issue,” he said. “And I think at the end of the day this is good for us and solidarity and centrality.”

That means more discussion as Asean ministers meet this week in Brunei for a regional forum to discuss security issues, he said.

Analysts say some degree of trust has been restored since last year’s row, but for Asean to move to a more integrated political community requires more than just trust.

Christian Le Miere, a senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, is less optimistic about an integrated Asean political community given that it lacks strong institutions and shared values.

“I think Asean could benefit from a slightly more candid and frank rhetoric around its integration,” he said.

And even though Asean is not the European Union, it can still find lessons there, he said. “Europe benefits from long historical animosities between these countries. I mean, they are quite happy to speak their own mind.”

Admitting tensions among Asean members and putting them out in the open could be helpful, he said.

Many analysts agree that the region is moving on the right track, albeit very slowly. But democratization remains another challenge.
Many are looking at the reforms under way in Burma as evidence that Asean is on the right track.

Poling, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says less democratic countries like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam will be affected by the changes in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

“You look at Vietnam,” he said. “Vietnam is furious because Myanmar was the guy that made Vietnam look good for the last 20 years. Now Vietnam’s this year’s press index, Vietnam is the lowest in Southeast Asia, not Myanmar. It’s a new game to them. They are back to being the bad guy.”

He says only time will tell if Burma will hold that promise.

For Thayer, at the Australian Defense Force Academy, Asean’s success will be a question of how its members actually define integration.

“No one has ever defined it,” he said. “On that day you don’t press a button and a light opens and all of the sudden there is a community. It’s a process. But when the end of 2015 comes, we could do a score card, and there will be some pluses and negatives. And in my estimation, the pluses will slightly outnumber the negatives, because they are moving in the right way.”

That process continues with the regional forum in Brunei this week, as well as a full summit in October.

Analyst Worries Democracy May Be Sidelined for Asean ‘Security’

Chinese and ASEAN leaders attend the 15th ASEAN-China Summit in Phnom Penh's Peace Palace, Cambodia, November 19, 2012. (VOA Khmer/Sophat Soeung)

Chinese and ASEAN leaders attend the 15th ASEAN-China Summit in Phnom Penh’s Peace Palace, Cambodia, November 19, 2012. (VOA Khmer/Sophat Soeung)

Sophat Soeung, VOA Khmer, April 13, 2013

WASHINGTON, DC – The adoption of the Asean Human Rights Declaration in Phnom Penh last year marked a major milestone for advocates of Asean democracy. But a prominent Southeast Asian security expert says that while democracy is important for security in Southeast Asia, getting the region’s democracy agenda back on track remains uncertain in the near term.

The recent opening up of Burma, also known as Myanmar, has made some observers see promise of greater democracy in Southeast Asia. But some worry that despite this attention, traditional security issues, like the South China Sea, might sideline the region’s democratization agenda in coming years.

Rizal Sukma, executive director at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, Indonesia, told an audience at the East West Center in Washington last week that the current global geopolitical climate is starting to affect how Southeast Asian countries prioritize their foreign policies.

Countries in the region are having to choose between their core values and their practical interests, he said. “My fear is that most of us will choose interest, rather than values,” he said. “And then we can say goodbye to democracy as the agenda of regional cooperation in Southeast Asia.”

Human rights and democracy were founding principles of Asean, a group that puts together democracies, constitutional monarchies and communist governments. But Indonesia, the bloc’s largest member, has been pushing for greater democratic reform since 2003.

Burma’s reforms in the democratization process have stirred some signs of optimism, but Sukma said democracy should be viewed as important regionally, as well. And that will require changes in a lot of countries.

“In a democracy, you have to open up and cannot withhold information anymore,” he said. “So it provides a lot of opportunities to actually understand each other better.”

But democracy is a tough agenda item for Asean countries, who typically have non-interference policies. It took years to adopt a Human Rights Declaration, one that rights groups have criticized as below international standards.

Katherine Southwick, an international law consultant based in Southeast Asia, told VOA Khmer via Skype that the Asean declaration is an evolving document, and while revision of some provisions will be helpful, its value will ultimately depend on implementation.

That will depend on citizens and governments, “and what kinds of measures they actually take when they are confronted with human rights abuses,” she said.

Sukma told VOA Khmer that the declaration allows governments to argue “cultural relativism” to trump universal rights norms. The declaration was a disappointment to Indonesia, the only Southeast Asian country listed as “free” by the US-based watchdog Freedom House, he said.

And though officially Indonesia welcomed the declaration at its signing in Phnom Penh last November, the country is walking a fine line between promoting a regional democratic agenda and alienating countries that might see its work as patronizing, he said.

Burma was the first Asean country to reach out directly to Indonesia for help in its democratization process, he said. Burma will now chair Asean in 2014, symbolizing the region’s struggle to put democracy as a pillar of regional security. But other issues are pressing, as well.

That kind of tension was brought to light at the November summit in Phnom Penh last year. The summit was dominated by policy arguments of the South China Sea, where Asean members have overlapping claims with China. Discussion on the rights declaration was overshadowed by that contentious issue.

Still, Sukma said Burma’s chairmanship will put democratization higher on the agenda, as the country seeks to trumpet this achievement.

July’s Failure Looms as Cambodia Prepares for Major Regional Summits

ASEAN countries' foreign ministers join their hands during a photo session at the 45th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers' Plus three Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, July 10, 2012.

ASEAN countries’ foreign ministers join their hands during a photo session at the 45th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers’ Plus three Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, July 10, 2012.

Sophat Soeung, VOA Khmer, November 14, 2012

WASHINGTON – As Cambodia prepares to host a series of top-level meetings in Phnom Penh next week, questions remain over how it will approach major issues such as the South China Sea.

Cambodia was heavily criticized for its behavior in an Asean meeting in July that ended in a deadlock among Southeast Asian ministers over language about the South China Sea, which sees overlapping claims among several Asean states and China. Cambodia was seen as furthering the interests of China, a major donor and investor in the country, ahead of those of regional partners.

Analysts now say next week’s meeting will be a test of whether Cambodia will continue to act counter to the interests of Asean.

Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, told VOA Khmer that Asean leaders need to have “one voice” in their discussions with China, even if the bloc doesn’t have a conflict resolution mechanism yet for disputes over the sea.

“We are only a mechanism to help compromise and to prevent escalation of the conflict,” he said.

That means any code of conduct agreed upon within Asean will not live up to the expectations of some.

Nevertheless, Asean leaders need to have a thorough discussion ahead of the Asean summit next week to understand the positions of each of its members ahead of talks with China.

“I think Cambodia has learned its lesson as is currently working its diplomatic skills to facilitate in-depth discussions between countries in the region on the issue,” he said.

Chheang Vannarith and other analysts doubt that next week’s meetings will bring about a code of conduct on the South China Sea.

Ernie Bower, who heads the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, told VOA Khmer that China overplayed its hand by pushing Cambodia in July.

“They put a lot of pressure on Cambodia,” he said.

This caused Foreign Minister Hor Namhong to break with tradition, he said.

As a result, for the first time in decades, Asean ministers were unable to draft a joint statement announcing the results of the meeting. This was due to a disagreement over language about the South China Sea, officials said at the time. The two countries most affected were the Philippines and Vietnam, who have come close to conflict with China over the sea and are the two most outspoken claimants to its waterways, islands and resources.

“I think what we can expect in November is a more moderate position by China,” he said. “I don’t think they’ll push Cambodia as hard, and I think the Chinese have realized that their very aggressive approach to Asean, trying to manipulate Cambodia to pull issues like South China Sea out of the discussion, is not going to be useful.”

Bower called China’s approach to the issue in July “outdated.” “That’s not the way the China-Asean relationship would prosper,” he said. “I think there probably is recognition among the Chinese that talking about the South China Sea is something that has to be done at the East Asia Summit. If the East Asia Summit won’t talk about the most important security issues that involve the countries that are involved of the day, then it’s not going to be relevant, it’s not going to be a sustained leadership forum with high value.”

Even so, there is unlikely to be a final code of conduct for the sea that all parties will agree on by November, he said. China is in the midst of selecting new leadership. “So you’ll have a new Chinese leader coming to Cambodia, freshly minted,” he said. “And I think the Chinese will probably try to sort of do no harm.”

However, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies, told the Voice of America in Bangkok that China might also go the other way. The election of a new leader in China, part a major shift in China’s next generation of communist leaders, could mean that China will want to appear strong at the East Asia Summit and other meetings, he said.

“So some drama is in store, because China will apply a lot of pressure” on other countries, he said. “Remember that China has some domestic concerns now; they’re going through a leadership transition. It’s not a good time for the Chinese leadership to appear weak.”

Kao Kim Hourn, secretary of state for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the South China Sea will likely be discussed at meetings next week, though it is unclear how much. “Previously, Asean leaders have raised this issue in this kind of agenda setting,” he told VOA Khmer.

He downplayed the importance of the failed meetings in July.

“Within the framework of Asean, it is a tradition that we can agree to disagree on various issues,” he said. “We’ve seen that as chair, Cambodia has tried to solve many challenges, especially sensitive issues.” Some sensitive topics cannot be put into joint statements, he said. “Because generally if we cannot agree on something, we cannot include it in a joint document.”

The upcoming summit will include more mutual understanding amid Asean states, he said. “Whether you want it or not, Asean will have central unity and solidarity and will approach every issue on the basis of friendship and cooperation.”