Saturday, 5 January 2013

ASEAN in 2012: Challenges, Success, and the Way Forwards

President Obama of the United States came to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for 4th ASEAN-US Leaders' Meeting. His official visits to Thailand, Myanmar, and finally Cambodia, mark the importance of "Pivot to Asia" policy by the Washington. 

It seems that the issue of South China Sea became one of the global headlines for ASEAN in 2012 as written by most famous newspapers and journals, while, in fact, there are many priority issues for Cambodia’s chairmanship of ASEAN, which it had successfully addressed and we should not overlook. Indeed, ASEAN creditability and unity has been enhanced after Cambodia successfully hosted and chaired the 21st ASEAN Summit, the 4th ASEAN-US Leaders’ Meeting, and the 7th East Asian Summit in November 2012, which was also attended by President Barrack Obama of the United States, and other related summits. This strongly indicated that ASEAN continues to play bigger role in East Asian regionalism in the present time and in the years to come.

In fact the year 2012 was the most challenging year for ASEAN, and also for Cambodia, as the ASEAN Chair. ASEAN has faced with new geopolitical change by major regional powers and the United States. A lot of new incidents and regional problems have simultaneously occurred, including the issue of South China Sea and other territorial disputes between China and Japan, and South Korea and Japan. Furthermore, in 2012, the US announced its new strategic policy “Pivot to Asia” which indicates its political and military re-balancing in the Asia Pacific region. Many analysts view that the announcement of new US’s policy is to counter-balance to the rise of China’s influence in the region. On economic front, slow economic growth in the US, fear of its fiscal cliff, and the debt crisis in the EU have brought economic and financial uncertainties to the region and the world. Whether ASEAN want it or not, it has to face and address all these issues effectively. So, it comes to the role of ASEAN Chair to maintain ASEAN cohesiveness and centrality in that context.

Cambodia's achievements in 2012 are far more than expected. Many important regional issues and agendas have been successfully addressed in all level of ASEAN meetings in the three pillars, political and security, economic, and socio-cultural cooperation. The adoption of the long-awaited ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, the adoption of Bali Concord III Plan of Action (2013-2017) which lay down ASEAN’s common platform in its external relations, the successful convening of ASEAN Global Dialogue for the first time at the sidelines of the 21st ASEAN Summit, the official launching of ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, the establishment of ASEAN Regional Mine Action Center, the adoption of the Joint Statement on the 10th Anniversary of the DOC, the official launching of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) between ASEAN and China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand, have been seen as major achievements by Cambodia in 2012.  These successes make ASEAN more focused and action-oriented for ASEAN community building with the aim of achieving an ASEAN Community by 2015 and a more accelerated regional economic integration in the region. On Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), Cambodia managed to have United Kingdom, European Union, and Brazil, the first country in Latin America, to accede to this important treaty of ASEAN. Why some people overlook all these significant achievements, and instead, only raised the downside of the story? No one can be perfect, but at least, Cambodia has tried its best to show to the world that ASEAN is moving forward with major achievements and strong commitment despite its own internal and external challenges.

On the issue of South China Sea, Cambodia, who was ASEAN Chair for the first time in 2002, invested tremendous diplomatic effort to successfully have the signing between ASEAN Foreign Ministers and China on the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) which lay down the framework for peaceful settlement of the dispute and call for the eventual conclusion of the Code of Conduct (COC).  Furthermore, when Cambodia chaired ASEAN for the second time in 2012, a joint statement between ASEAN and China on the 10th anniversary of DOC was adopted in November, which reaffirms the importance of the DOC, and also calls for relevant parties to refrain from any activities which could escalate the tension in the South China Sea. We should not overlook all these important contribution by Cambodia to ASEAN and the region. Those who criticize Cambodia should open their eyes to see both sides of the story and the whole image rather than assuming all the faults to Cambodia. In fact, we cannot stop people criticizing ASEAN Chair, but Cambodia's significant contribution will be long remembered.

What is remarkable is that all ASEAN leaders have come to Phnom Penh for the 21st ASEAN Summit to show to the world of their commitment to maintain ASEAN Unity and centrality after the regional crisis in July 2012. Cambodia has exhausted all efforts to ensure ASEAN unity and cohesiveness, and to enhance ASEAN external relations, as prescribed in the article 32 of ASEAN Charter. Its achievement for ASEAN heavily outweighs the shortfalls and mishaps under its Chairmanship in 2012. Some critics have accused Cambodia of taking side with China on the issue of South China Sea after the failure of non-issuance of the traditional joint communiqué at the 45th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting (AMM) in July 2012. The problem is that there was no consensus among ASEAN members, especially the claimant states, on one paragraph of the draft joint communiqué, in which two members demanded to include the contentious issue of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. However, with the help of Indonesian Foreign Minister’s shuttle diplomacy, ASEAN’s Six-Point Principle on the issue of South China Sea was issued in Phnom Penh in 20 July 2012, which strongly indicates that ASEAN still remains united on the most contentious issue. Cambodian officials have claimed that the content of the six-point principles is exactly the same as Cambodia’s proposal during 45th AMM, but it was flatly rejected by the two countries. Cambodia, as ASEAN Chair, has exhausted all efforts to ensure ASEAN’s centrality and unity, and also to protect ASEAN’s interest in economic cooperation with regional powers. According to ASEAN Charter, ASEAN way is upheld by ASEAN Chair and member countries, which they have to make decision based on consultation and consensus. How can someone accuse Cambodia of being biased to China while the DOC and the Joint Statement on the 10th anniversary of DOC have been adopted in Cambodia to help resolve the disputes peacefully, which significantly contribute to easing the tension in the region?

ASEAN has not only survived for 45 years since its establishment, but have prospered, expanded, and engaged successfully with external partners within and beyond the regions in the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st century. Strategic rivalry for regional influence by major regional powers, especially between China and the US, and other regional conflicts are not only seen as major obstacles to regionalism in East Asia, but also contributed to the rise of ASEAN’ role in the building of regional community, such as ASEAN community and East Asian Community in the long-term. Therefore, that is why all countries in the region can continue to enjoy having peace, stability, and prosperity together regardless of nationalism, historical legacy, and regional disputes. In this context, it is the role that ASEAN Chair has to perform to make sure that they keep ASEAN moving forwards despites all those problems. Cambodia has done all of these tasks in last year.

Starting from January this year 2013, the ASEAN Chairmanship is officially held by Brunei, which is also one of the claimant states in South China Sea. All eyes will focus on this tiny oil-rich country on how it will address this most contentious regional problem and other ASEAN’s challenges. Of course, most analysts would expect that Brunei will take a harder line against China. For the rest of this year, it is remain to be seen on this issue, whether Brunei will push forwards on the negotiation for Code of Conduct (COC) between ASEAN and China or not. People in all ASEAN countries have celebrated new year 2013 with excitement and a fresh expectation that now ASEAN has moving even closer to 2015 with only two years to go to have an ASEAN Economic Community. Since the year of 2012 has passed, Cambodia feels relieved and Brunei is ready to take over the hot seat of ASEAN Chair. I strongly believe that ASEAN will keep the momentum from last year and build on past achievements and experiences from the previous years to enhance ASEAN’s image, credibility, and centrality in the global community of nations, as envisaged by ASEAN leaders in Bali in November 2011.

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