Why It Matters

Asean speaks with one voice

The solidarity of Asean has been called into question by some people in recent years over its inability to always come up with a clear, unified position on contentious issues.

But at last week's Asean Summit, the grouping spoke with one voice on the crisis in the Korean peninsula, an issue that threatens peace in Asia, if not the world. First, Asean foreign ministers issued a joint statement and expressed grave concern over North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile tests. This was reiterated separately by Asean leaders who, in their statement, urged Pyongyang to immediately stop its destabilising activities.

It is important for Asean to state its stance so that Pyongyang knows its actions do not have the support of the international community. It is also a timely reminder of Asean's value to partners such as China and the United States, which are becoming frustrated with Pyongyang's actions, including its refusal to dismantle its nuclear and missile programmes.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the meetings, Asean must safeguard its unity and speak with one voice on key issues to remain relevant to its own members and to external partners.

However, the issue of the South China Sea led critics to note that China was once again given a free pass on the disputed waters - where four Asean members have overlapping territorial claims with Beijing. The Asean chairman's statement made no mention of China's island-building activity, nor an international tribunal's ruling against Beijing's claims in the waters and in favour of the Philippines.

These omissions were taken by some as a sign of Asean's disunity and weakness, with naysayers saying some members initially wanted a stronger tone. Still, members closed ranks behind the softer tone, in the interest of negotiations with China on a framework for a maritime code of conduct.What this shows, perhaps, is that full agreement on a particular position is not always necessary. That some parties are willing to be accommodating on an issue in the interests of the larger good also makes for a united Asean.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2017, with the headline 'Asean speaks with one voice'. Print Edition | Subscribe