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Asean after the tribunal ruling

Asean needs to build trust among its members, especially those with historical issues about its neighbours, like Cambodia.

There was little surprise that the traditional joint communique after last month's Asean foreign ministers' meeting did not directly address the July 12 Arbitral Tribunal ruling on the case brought by the Philippines against China's expansive claims in the South China Sea.

Some diplomats were at pains to point out that the statement had championed the rule of law and legal processes but the stark fact is that the ruling was not mentioned.

It had taken some late-night and early-morning huddles by its foreign ministers for Asean to avoid the debacle of 2012 when, for the first time in its 45-year history, it failed to issue a joint communique because members could not agree on whether to include the South China Sea disputes.

At the time, Vietnam and the Philippines, which had had flare-ups with the Chinese over their competing claims in the contested waters, wanted mention of the disputes. But Cambodia, then chairman of Asean - reportedly at the behest of the Chinese - objected to it.

Four years on, a repeat of the debacle was averted because the Philippines relented by not insisting that the tribunal be mentioned. The holdout, it appeared, was again Cambodia, which before the meeting had publicly criticised the arbitration case as a "political conspiracy" and supported China's call for disputes to be resolved through bilateral negotiations. China had refused to take part in the case and rejected the findings that were largely in Manila's favour.

However, despite all the efforts to reach a consensus on the joint communique, the international media has characterised it as a victory for China that the tribunal ruling was not mentioned at all.

Asean once again looked impotent in the face of the intractable South China Sea territorial disputes that are becoming a focal point of big-power rivalry in the region, particularly between China and its key rivals the United States and Japan.

Asean's failure to come up with a meaningful statement on the tribunal ruling, say some analysts, means the group risks becoming irrelevant on the South China Sea issue. Asean risks being bypassed, with the big powers dealing directly with each other, and China dealing straight with individual member countries, not the group as a whole. Not only would the disputes turn into a full-fledged Sino-American rivalry, but lopsided deals may ensue between Beijing and its far weaker South-east Asian neighbours with which it has overlapping claims, some have warned.

So how can Asean regroup so that China will not have its way as it wishes with it?

How can the grouping not only stay relevant in the South China Sea disputes but also manage the growing big-power rivalry in the region so that it can maintain its autonomy and its members don't have to make what some have called "invidious choices"?

Asean's unity is key in all this - unity that gives it the strength to stand up to the powers with interests in the region.

To maintain its unity, not only does it need to continue with its building of an economic community and helping the less developed members to catch up with the more affluent ones, Asean also has to be more effective in building trust between members - some of which have yet to get over their centuries-old rivalries and animosities - and in managing conflicts between member states.

One member Asean has to manage is Cambodia. In the South China Sea disputes between China and four of its members, Asean's inability to speak with one voice has been laid at the door of Cambodia, seen to be in thrall to China.

Much has been made of Cambodia's dependence on Chinese aid and investment. But that's just half the story.

As Bronson Percival, a former professor at the US Naval War College, wrote in his book The Dragon Looks South: "China is the prime guarantor of Cambodia's national security." Deng Xiaoping's China attacked Vietnam in 1979 in response to Hanoi's invasion of Cambodia, he pointed out.

Going further back in history, Cambodia's King Norodom in 1863 signed an agreement with France to "institute a protectorate over his vulnerable kingdom against the two oppressive neighbours - Siam (Thailand today) and Vietnam - and eventually became a part of the French Indochina", wrote former Thai diplomat Pavin Chachavalpongpun.

The perceived loss of territory, including land on which the Preah Vihear temple stood, as a result of a map drawn during the colonial period demarcating the Siamese-Cambodian border based on the watershed, became a sore point for the Thais that continued to the present day and precipitated a three-year conflict between the two Asean states after the temple was declared a World Heritage Site under the sole charge of Cambodia in 2008.

Fighting broke out intermittently from 2008 and Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen appealed to Asean for help unsuccessfully, eventually going to the International Court of Justice in 2011. The judgment was handed down in 2013, closing the case. But as Mr Pavin wrote, "Cambodia is frozen in aspic as Thailand's historical arch-enemy".

Tensions have also simmered between Cambodia and Vietnam over their problematic land border, exacerbated by Cambodia's opposition's use of the issue to discredit Mr Hun Sen.

Asean needs to build trust between Cambodia and the neighbours it feels squeezed in between, so that there is less need for it to appeal to an outside power for protection against its fellow Asean members. It needs to do the same for other member states with similar historical distrust.

The grouping can also build trust by resolving territorial disputes between members, not least of which are those in the South China Sea. The Arbitral Tribunal ruling, in declaring the key Spratly Islands in the contested waters as features not capable of supporting 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zones, has given the claimants the incentive to resolve their disputes by reducing the area of overlap between their claims.

This opportunity should be seized.

Resolving its own territorial disputes will also put Asean in a stronger position when dealing with members' disputes with China.

But resolving disputes is a long-term process.

In the meantime, in order to be able to take a stand on critical issues in the region, the grouping might want to move away from the need for full consensus and go for supermajority voting on resolutions, instead.

The principle of non-interference and consensus served the grouping well in past decades.

But the situation is changing and Asean needs to respond to these changes if it is to make sure that it can continue to work towards its founding goal - to preserve peace in the region and through its unity to "balance the roles" of outside powers in the region, as analysts have said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2016, with the headline 'Asean after the tribunal ruling'. Print Edition | Subscribe