This is not just a rhetorical question. Inability to reach consensus on the South China Sea (SCS) has exposed cracks in Asean unity to the glare of public scrutiny. Asean's relevance is being questioned by academic commentators and journalists, by Asean dialogue partners and even - sotto voce - by some Asean member states. Without a minimally credible answer to the question, Asean will be marginalised. Asean will not disappear: Regular meetings of leaders and ministers will still be held with pomp and ceremony; solemn statements will be issued. But will anyone take much notice?
As far as the SCS is concerned, this is not to be taken for granted.
The SCS is a major international waterway. Vital trade routes pass through it and the skies above the SCS are among the busiest in civil aviation. The SCS occupies a uniquely strategic position connecting the Pacific Ocean with the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. This is an issue of international concern. If Asean cannot take a position on such a crucial matter in its own region, why should anyone take us seriously?
WHY CONSENSUS MATTERS
There is no evading the fact that on the SCS, Asean is divided. The media has laid primary responsibility for blocking consensus on Cambodia acting at China's behest. Shortly after the 2012 meeting, Prime Minister Hun Sen said that Cambodia had made a "strategic choice" in China's favour. Phnom Penh has not been shy about its position on the SCS. This year, before the Arbitral Tribunal announced its decision, Beijing had repeatedly and in often hectoring terms warned all Asean members against taking a common position on the award and Prime Minister Hun Sen said twice that Cambodia would not agree to a common Asean position. Cambodia is by no means the only Asean country that has been reluctant to incur China's wrath over the SCS. The unusual forthrightness of Cambodia's leaders in 2012 and after has been a convenient cover for the others inclined to duck.
Cambodia was acting within the letter of its rights under the Asean Charter which makes clear that decisions will be made by consensus. Asean's disagreements over the SCS have led to the efficacy and relevance of the consensus principle being questioned. Frustration with the consensus principle is understandable, particularly at a time when the East Asian strategic environment is changing rapidly with the United States and China groping towards a new modus vivendi with each other and other countries in the region. Their competition in the SCS has become something of a proxy for the larger strategic adjustments that are under way.
It cannot be denied that decision-making by consensus degrades Asean's ability to act on controversial issues. It is sub-optimal. But alternatives to the consensus principle are only theoretical propositions, advocated by those with no responsibility for where they may lead Asean. We are not the European Union and in any case it is now clear that the EU is not the most edifying of models for Asean to emulate. As an interstate organisation with a very diverse membership with different national interests, in practice Asean can only operate by consensus. Any other mode of decision-making could escalate even minor differences into major splits and risks the organisation breaking up entirely.
Decision-making by consensus is a fuse that trips when differences of national interests surge to the point where the system becomes so overloaded that it could be torn apart.
Prior to 2012, no matter how fiercely we disagreed, Asean members have been punctilious about reaching consensus. Asean's most basic consensus is a consensus on always having a consensus, even if it is only a consensus of form or on words to maintain a facade of unity. We have managed to do so even on sensitive bilateral disputes between members.
A consensus on always having a consensus preserves Asean's fundamental and enduring purpose of ensuring civility and order in relations between its members in a region where this is not to be assumed. This is a crucial function. In South-east Asia, sovereignties are relatively new and often still tender; historical enmities not yet forgotten and the region lies at the intersection of major power interests. Asean is intended to allow the small states of South-east Asia - and the biggest of us is small compared to the major powers - to retain some modicum of autonomy through maintaining cohesion.
This is one of Asean's under-appreciated successes: Today there are tensions in the SCS but as a whole South-east Asia is at peace with itself and the world and prospering. This is a situation that would not at all have seemed likely in 1967. If the consensus principle is repeatedly abused, the consequences could be unpredictable, not just for Asean but also for the major powers, including China. A repeat of what happened in 2012 could set Asean on a path to a dangerous destination.
CONDUCT AT SEA
It is not within Asean's competence to resolve the SCS disputes. In so far as the SCS has become a proxy for US-China competition, Asean is only a secondary player; as much arena as actor. Asean may have only a limited role but, potentially at least, again not an inconsequential role. The key word is "potentially". Here too the evidence is mixed.
China has agreed to Singapore's proposal for a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea or Cues which is intended to reduce the possibility of accidents pending agreement on a Code of Conduct (COC) for the SCS. A draft declaration on an Asean-China Cues is under discussion by Asean and China.
But China only agreed to discuss a Cues for its coast guard and not the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy. This is a serious limitation. China claims substantial swaths of the SCS as Chinese territory since "ancient times" and has relied primarily on its coast guard to enforce its domestic laws in the SCS, for instance on fishing. But PLA Navy patrols and exercises in the SCS and has deployed assets on the artificial islands China has created. Over time, PLA Navy will certainly qualitatively and quantitatively step up its SCS deployments. What this means for Asean and in particular the Asean claimants whose navies are dwarfed by PLA Navy - in fact overshadowed even by the Chinese coast guard - is unclear. The US 7th Fleet is the only real balancer in the SCS. Still even a limited Cues is better than nothing and could supplement the Cues that the US and China have already agreed for the Pacific Ocean, but which China has apparently also complied with in the SCS where the commander of the US Pacific Command recently acknowledged dangerous incidents have been rare.
The most potentially consequential Asean proposal on the table is a COC for the SCS. It has been under discussion for several years. Progress has been glacial. To be of real use, a COC must deal with many substantive issues. Only the surface of the substance of a COC has been skimmed so far. A disinterested observer might be forgiven for wondering whether China, or at least PLA Navy, is really interested in a binding COC which would limit the freedom of action of all parties to it, or whether the process of interminably discussing a COC is a means of constraining Asean. But that would be a churlish thought and let me make it clear that I am not a disinterested observer and so do not entertain such thoughts.
At the Vientiane meeting, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that negotiations should be fast-tracked and that China wants a framework for a COC by 2017. This can be regarded as recognition that progress on the COC has been unsatisfactory, that the SCS disputes have dented China's reputation and if allowed to get out of hand, could seriously damage relations with Asean. Concluding a COC would be a strong positive signal that any foreign ministry would welcome. But we should not expect miracles. Negotiations over the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and its implementation guidelines took 20 years to conclude. The issues that a COC must engage are more complex than those in the DOC.
ECONOMICS MATTER MORE
The SCS issue should be seen in context. It is only one aspect of Asean-China relations. On the whole, Asean-China relations are positive. Sovereignty disputes nevertheless cast deep shadows because how a big country deals with small countries on matters of sovereignty is inevitably taken as an indication of the big country's intentions towards its neighbours. As the SCS is the locus around which US-China and Asean-China relations act and interact on each other in South-east Asia, it receives the most international attention and tends to be over-emphasised. But it is not the only issue or necessarily even the most important issue on either the US-China agenda or Asean's own agenda.
Economic integration is in my view of greater long-term geopolitical significance to Asean.
The root cause of divisions in Asean on the SCS is changes in the way some members now calculate their national interests. China is looming larger in the economic calculations of every country in East Asia, including formal US allies. The infrastructure and other investments now undertaken within the broad framework of "One Belt, One Road" are binding south-west China and mainland South-east Asia into one economic space. This is to be welcomed on economic grounds but undoubtedly also gives China political influence. Beijing cannot be blamed for exercising its influence. No major power in history has ever forsworn any instrument of influence. Asean members differ widely in their levels of economic development and hence in their economic options. For some, in particular the newer and less developed members, China represents the best - and perhaps only - hope of moving up the value chain. We must try to change their calculations of interests. This is the geopolitical significance of the Asean Economic Community (AEC). The bedrock of Asean's relevance and centrality must be economic.
The AEC cannot replace China in the economic calculations of Asean members. An AEC that achieves its goals of a common market and common production platform could, however, broaden options, mitigate China's influence and enhance Asean's attractiveness to other dialogue partners, making it easier for them to continue to believe in Asean's centrality and relevance.
It will not be easy. The key issues that must be confronted in the next phase of the Asean economic integration - non-tariff barriers, services and some form of labour mobility - are intrinsically difficult. Economic nationalism is running high in some Asean members. Others are experiencing buyer's remorse over the current level of AEC commitment. Some Asean members are undergoing complicated political changes. It will be difficult. But we must try.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2016, with the headline 'Consensus, centrality and relevance: Asean and the South China Sea'. Print Edition | Subscribe
We have been experiencing some problems with subscriber log-ins and apologise for the inconvenience caused. Until we resolve the issues, subscribers need not log in to access ST Digital articles. But a log-in is still required for our PDFs.