ASEAN: time for change

ASEAN: time for change

Emvarrassing stumbles even happen to big guys. At this year’s London Olympics, a sloppy baton change by the favoured Brits caused their relay team to be disqualified.

At previous Games in Beijing and Athens, America’s top-rated sprinters dropped the baton and ruled themselves out of the medals.

So perhaps we should cut Cambodia some slack for repeatedly dropping the baton during its chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations over the past year.

At key meetings and summits, Cambodia’s kowtowing to Beijing and its failure to back fellow members in their deliberations about the South China Sea sovereignty disputes led to open revolt.

This was evident at last month’s summit when Cambodia falsely alleged that ASEAN leaders had agreed not to “internationalise” the conflicting maritime claims.

Half the group’s members rebutted that assertion, and when Cambodia fought to keep language favoured by Beijing, its ASEAN colleagues resisted and expunged such wording from the final declaration.

The episode was so shameful that the group’s secretary-general Surin Pitsuan admitted last month that it had caused ASEAN to suffer a crisis of confidence.

On Thursday, the International Crisis Group’s regional director Jim Della-Giacoma said the events of the past year have laid bare the deep fault lines that run through ASEAN’s diverse membership.

Well, at least the annus horribilus is almost over. And to the relief of all, the baton will pass from Cambodia to Brunei next month.

Although it is tiny, Brunei has more experience of ASEAN affairs and a wiser understanding of the group’s consensual credo.

And in Foreign Minister Prince Mohamed Bolkiah and Second Minister Lim Jock Seng, it has a veteran duo who are actually liked by other members.

Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Hor Namhong is also experienced; indeed, at 77 and after 14 years in the job, many believe he is past his sell-by date as an effective minister.

That cannot be said of the quiet but warm Mohamed nor of the avuncular Lim.

Of course, it is alleged that Mohamed only has the job because he is the Sultan’s brother, and that Lim is the brains behind the twosome.

Whether true or not, few dispute they form a competent and likable team, so there is less chance of internal squabbling or the non-issuance of communiques under Brunei’s chairmanship.

That is something to welcome.

Yes, there is a trade-off in that little Brunei will not actively push for any major initiatives, but that is all well and good; what ASEAN needs now is a year of quietly restoring group amity and solidarity.

That process will be aided when the talented but rather excitable Surin is replaced at the end of this month by Vietnam’s deputy foreign minister Le Luong Minh, a grey and cautious apparatchik.

Typically, Surin has urged that Minh be given a greater mandate to act on behalf of the entire group, but there is little chance of that happening – doubtless much to Minh’s relief.

During his five-year term, Minh has said that talks on a code of conduct for the South China Sea and the implementation of a regional nuclear-weapons-free zone will be his top priorities.

Good luck to him on both counts. There is no way the United States, China or India will agree to the latter goal, and while there may be talks about maritime sovereignty disputes, they are unlikely to go far.

Still, as long as such talks are even-handed and do not descend to the depths of rancour encountered in Phnom Penh over the past year, most people will be happy.

Said Della-Giacoma: “As the new secretary-general settles in, ASEAN watchers are not expecting as much public reflection in the coming year, especially with taciturn Brunei taking over the rotating chairmanship.”

Let’s hope he is right.