The unity and ASEAN's central role in regional security structure has been hailed as a major success of this regional organization. But now it is gradually becoming a suspicious "legend". Behind this disturbing reality seems to be the hand of some external forces.
From the incident at the Non-Aligned Movement Summit
The artificial island of China in the East Sea. Photo: CSIS
At the 17th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) that was held recently in Venezuela, there was an incident that attracted the attention of the international community.
Specifically, after the conference, The Global Times of China accused Singapore of intentionally "stirring up" the East Sea dispute at this forum. Singapore's Ambassador in Beijing immediately rejected the allegations and said that the Global Times’ accusation is baseless and not true to the real situation at the conference.
The issue revolves around a paragraph in the final text of the conference referring to the East Sea. The content about the East Sea has long been included in the section on the Southeast Asian region in the final text of the NAM summit by the ASEAN countries, including the most recent conference held in Iran in 2012.
However, due to recent developments in the East Sea in the last 4 years, the ASEAN countries agreed to update this paragraph in the final text of the conference this year. However, Beijing intervened in and the host country Venezuela refused to put this paragraph into the final document, contrary to the practice that NAM states have the right to decide the content of the paragraph talking about their region.
In this context, based on the proposal of Laos (chair of ASEAN), Singapore's representative at the meeting raised the issue and read the full text of this paragraph before the conference. This led to the controversy mentioned above between China and Singapore.
There are examples to show the fact that the external forces are trying to take control of ASEAN. Not only at the NAM meeting, but at most other ASEAN conferences, they also succeeded to put pressure on some members of this organization to divide ASEAN and impede the Association's decision that they considered unfavorable for them.
For example, in July 2012, ASEAN was unable to reach a joint statement for the first time in its history. More recently, at the annual meeting held in July 2016, the ASEAN foreign ministers could not reach consensus in the joint statement referring to the historic ruling made two weeks earlier by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the East Sea case between the the Philippines and China. The main reason is some countries in the region were dominated by outside forces.
The risks for ASEAN and Vietnam
Once ASEAN countries cannot decide their issues from what to speak at international conference to how to behave to a serious security issue of the region such as the East Sea dispute, then it is clear that the role and position of this organization in regional security structure will be suspected. In that context, the benefits of each ASEAN member country will be threatened.
Since joining ASEAN in 1995, Vietnam has become an active member of this regional organization. ASEAN itself has also brought to Vietnam many great benefits from economic cooperation to enhance the international status and maintaining an environment of peace and stability in the region, especially the management of the East Sea conflict through the mechanisms of ASEAN. Therefore, once ASEAN is dominated by outsiders and loses its role, Vietnam will also suffer losses. A typical example is the deadlock of ASEAN in dealing with the rising tensions in the East Sea recently.
ASEAN's divisions and the weakening role of this organization in regional security are not only unfavorable to the 10 member countries but also cause unpredictable consequences for external powers. Even China, the country that was recently named as the dominant factor behind this situation, will have to face the potential consequences, because once the ASEAN countries is dominated by other forces, China can also be opposed by these countries. In addition, the division of ASEAN also facilitates the penetration of outside powers into Southeast Asia, the thing that the Chinese themselves will have to worry.
The solution to rescue ASEAN
Therefore, supporting the role of ASEAN as well as strengthening of this organization should be an important priority in the foreign policy of the member states in general and Vietnam in particular. Vietnam and the other member states need to stand up against the intervention of outside power, causing ASEAN’s division. The incidents like the one at the Non-Aligned Movement Summit should be stopped.
In the long term, ASEAN also needs improvements in terms of processes and institutions in order to enhance the effectiveness of the organization's activities, especially in dealing with the serious security threat for the region such as the East Sea dispute.
In terms of process, ASEAN should consider offering an additional mechanism for the principle of consensus, for example, a vote by majority for certain decisions related to political and security issues.
Without the necessary flexibility to enable ASEAN to effectively solve the security threats, ASEAN will continue to be divided and become a tool for other powers to serve their interests.
ASEAN will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2017. So perhaps it is the right time for ASEAN member countries to think about the future. If they do not support ASEAN's role and take effective measures to prevent the intervention of the powers into the bloc, ASEAN's central role in regional security will soon become the past.
Le Hong Hiep
Dr. Le Hong Hiep is the principal investigator at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute), Singapore, and a lecturer of the Faculty of International Relations, University of Social Sciences and Humanities, HCM City.