The sidelines of the recent ASEAN ruckus offered a rare glimpse of the political and trading bloc grasping for diplomatic straws. Their failure to produce a closing statement at the summit, a first in its 45 year history, was only redeemed by some fast moving last minute footwork from the Indonesians.
A six point document was released recently which reaffirmed in general terms the “ASEAN way” in dispute resolution, in particular with China in the resource-rich South China Sea, also known as the West Philippine Sea and the East Sea in Vietnam.
Neither The Philippines nor Vietnam agreed with the statement.
In the end it was a document that saved Cambodia’s position as the current chair of ASEAN, where many have accused it of putting its own bilateral interests with China ahead of the overall and more immediate interests of the bloc.
This point not lost in a report written by Keith Loveard, a senior analyst with the Jakarta-based Concord Security, for private clients of the consulting firm. The report also notes, however, that Cambodia was not the only country acting out of self-interest in the recent marathon of diplomacy. In fact, the widely depicted protagonist of the recent saga, Indonesia, could be accused of doing the same.
“Put bluntly, Jakarta really does not care if ASEAN lives or dies,” Loveard writes.
“What is important is that Jakarta and Indonesia project themselves as important players within the region. That will serve to make it clear both to Beijing and Washington and any other player who wants to get involved in Southeast Asia that it has to treat Indonesia as a partner.”
That message was received loud and clear, with Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa embarking on a whistle-stop tour of five countries in two days before winning an agreement on a statement that, as Loveard says, papered over a wide crack.
“Indonesia is acting in its own interests, not those of ASEAN, determined to carve itself a major role in regional diplomacy with or without the organization,” the report said.
It added that while other countries’ diplomats would avoid their ideological foes, Indonesia would always maintain a friendly demeanor.
“Being friends with all parties is one of the official principles of Indonesia’s foreign policy. One of the other principles is that foreign policy should be pursued in an active manner, and that was certainly on show at the end of last week.”
It’s an important point.
The six-point statement offered the barest of rhetoric. In itself, this is not uncommon, but the heated arguments, hissy fits and air miles clocked-up to get this to the table was nothing short of a gold rush for ASEAN skeptics who believe differences among members will eventually prove insurmountable.
Loveard also noted that Cambodia remains highly sensitive to criticism of its close relationship to one of two “elephants in the room” – namely China, the other elephant being the United States.
“It is highly dependent on Chinese investment and fears losing that investment if it does not cater to Chinese demands on the South China Sea.”
That makes it an unfortunate choice as chair of ASEAN this year. Since it was its turn to lead the organization it was impossible to avoid a situation in which it was likely to have to choose between its allegiance to China and its responsibilities to ASEAN. Clearly, it preferred China to ASEAN.
“For China, Cambodia represents a malleable ally in a region where a number of other countries are leaning toward the U.S. Singapore and the Philippines are firmly in the U.S. camp; Vietnam is in talks with Washington over the use of Cam Ranh Bay by the U.S. Navy.
“For Indonesia, still carefully sitting on the fence between these two elephants, the crisis in ASEAN represented an opportunity.”
The report noted that Indonesia would remain neutral in the battle for influence between the U.S. and China and its policy of being friends to all would continue and put Jakarta in a good position to achieve maximum benefit.
“The problem it faces, however, is that if the two elephants in the room do decide that the only course of action is hostility, there will be nothing a middleweight like Indonesia will be able to do but sit on the sidelines and watch the world as we know it collapse.”