Time for concerted Asean voice on S. China Sea dispute

I agree that Asean ought to find its own voice to more effectively address territorial disputes in the South China Sea ("Asean should find independent statement that reflects its soul" by Dr Chang Wen Lam; Forum Online, last Tuesday).

One could even go as far as to say that Asean's leaders should work towards greater cohesiveness and more decisive action, lest the organisation lose relevance and credibility in these extremely trying times.

For too long, Asean has had the reputation of being a mere "talk shop" for regional leaders, one that has all too often been incapable of generating united fronts and concrete policies.

Asean also continues to lack strong multinational institutions that are needed to turn ideas and intent into tangible impact.

At times, Asean's decidedly laissez-faire attitude towards consensus building has produced a rather muddled picture of a divided regional bloc, with the Kunming meeting being only the latest example.

It is no wonder that, in the absence of an influential regional bloc, other world powers have attempted to step in and enforce their own concepts of regional law and order.

For instance, the United States has significantly stepped up its presence in the region, with the deployment of littoral combat ships and patrol aircraft alongside the highly contentious "freedom of navigation" exercises.

Meanwhile, France has proposed European patrols of regional shipping lanes.

If Asean remains so hamstrung by its own devices, it can never become a pre-eminent force in South-east Asia.

At worst, it might be exploited as a proxy.

This is highly significant, as the interests and aspirations of South-east Asian nations can and do naturally diverge from the ambitions of foreign powers.

A strong Asean is, hence, needed to actualise our self-determination.

Asean leaders need to be more proactive in searching for common ground among them, finding a singular expression for that shared sentiment, and turning their promises and goals into reality.

We cannot let the South China Sea disputes fester for any longer than they already have.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2016, with the headline 'Time for concerted Asean voice on S. China Sea dispute'. Print Edition | Subscribe