The news is in a frenzied uproar. Apocalyptic phrases are being thrown around with an almost alarming hysteria: ‘unprecedented failure’, ‘break down’, and the ever ominous and most dreaded word to come from a leader’s lips, ‘disappointing’.
First, let us analyze the facts. Yes, the end of the summit broke with previous tradition in that a joint communique was not issued. Yes, there was no conclusion and no consensus; at best a tense impasse and a messy tangle of unearthed issues. And yes, the South China Sea still remains contested territory. The foreign ministers and ambassadors of the member nations are all caught up, dejected and lamenting the implications of ASEAN’s inability to reach a solution on the presented issues. ASEAN’s credibility is now in question, frets Singapore's Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam; how can ASEAN hope for community by 2015 when it cannot even issue a concluding joint statement at the annual summit which is supposed to be a forum to address and resolve urgent issues affecting the region?
But here is why the outcome of the ASEAN Summit should not be cause for alarm.
The lack of a joint communique is actually a decisive victory for regional integration in Southeast Asia. The territorial dispute in the South China Sea is not a small issue. The ten member nations of ASEAN arrived in Phnom Penh with divergent opinions and different ways to approach a solution in the South China Sea. Their hope: to frame a binding code of conduct that would govern the way China and the Southeast Asians settled competing territorial disputes. Of course, if we take a step back and look at this, we can agree that this is an ambitious goal in any setting.
The South China Sea issue is complicated multifaceted case. The waters are resource-rich; the site of a third of the world's shipping traffic, plentiful of fish and potentially oil and gas as well. China has unilaterally laid territorial claims over the waters, and action which has sparked conflict, especially with Vietnam and the Philippines. In the recent months, tensions have threatened to erupt amid standoffs between Chinese and Philippine ships –look at the confrontational behaviour in the disputed Scarborough Shoal off northwestern Philippines-, as well as competing Chinese and Vietnamese claims. The denial of access to vessels and the use of military and government force in disputes among fishermen has heightened the fear of the smaller Southeast Asian nation at being swallowed up by China’s greater and expanding power.
To this end, ASEAN sought to make a power play and assert the geopolitical power the global community has attributed to her in the wake of ASEAN’s 45th birthday. The goal was a common position; to act together as one and in doing so demand Beijing to accept a code of conduct for resolving territorial disputes that would not consist in China brushing off the appeals of the smaller nations. Here, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia are particularly concerned as to their political and economic identity vis-à-vis the Asian giant of China. However, the dynamics of the conference were such that though the Philippines and Vietnam pushed adamantly for a strict and binding agreement, Cambodia resisted any steps that would embarrass China.
The annual conference of ASEAN failed to budge China: the ten member nations could not agree on a framework which would “foster cooperation where interests align, and manage difference where they don’t.” So, was not the end of the 19th ASEAN Summit an unprecedented disaster?
No. Because the fact remains that the ten member nations met and argued about a very critical and contentious subject. It is all well and easy to issue a joint communique where the issue discussed presents no conflict, but it is even greater that ASEAN has become a regional forum where actors feel they can address and potentially successfully resolve major disagreements. That all the summit attendees lament the issuance of a concluding joint statement implies that they believed such a thing would be possible within the ASEAN framework.
On their 45th year of existence, ASEAN can finally boast a failed summit. No longer is ASEAN a puppet regional forum where the member nations discuss consensual issues and scoff at the idea that such a summit would be a forum for debating serious and complex conflicts. A shift in ideas has taken place: multilateral action over bilateral agreements. And a future of deep ASEAN community suddenly looks much more ideologically feasible by 2015.