The disappointment expressed in your esteemed editorial (ASEAN divided against itself – July 16) echoes the sentiment of many observers who closely followed the summit.
Apparently, it was the only thing that all member states seemed to agree on with each other during the conference.
It is absolutely disappointing that the conference ended without a joint communiqué. But what was even more disappointing was to observe irresponsible accusations flying in all directions from some diplomats (and reporters alike) who appeared to be keener in laying the blame on the host country than focusing on finding a common ground to reach a consensus within the group.
Throughout the summit, Cambodia was visibly unfairly targeted and pressured by some member states. The atmosphere was diplomatically un-ASEAN to say the least. With the hawkish view of “either you’re with me, or you’re against me”, some went as far as bluntly accusing Cambodia of either being anti-ASEAN or taking side with China.
Cambodia has neither interest nor intention in taking sides in the South China Sea dispute or any other disputes. It simply but prudently opts to carry on ASEAN’s customary non-confrontational approach. Any other non-partisan state holding the ASEAN rotating Chairmanship role would have virtually done the same.
The inability to resolve the discord over some wording – thus the omission of the post-summit joint communiqué altogether – is clearly an embarrassment for the group and marks a low point for ASEAN in its 45 years of existence. Such an incident underpins the pressing need for the group to revise its underlying principle of non-interference, which in its present form is impractical in today’s context.
Simply put it, ASEAN is ill-prepared to deal with an issue as divisive and politically charged as the South China Sea dispute. It lacks an effective overriding mechanism or protocol that can break a deadlock and, if warranted, force a consensus through a voting process.
Realistically, ASEAN cannot expect to continue to function the same way as when it was established 45 years ago. As its membership increases, so does its diversity; its member states hold different political tendencies and often conflicting interests.
Such diversity inherently makes it nearly impossible to maintain a strong unity within the group. If ASEAN is to become a vibrant “one community, one destiny” and speak with one influential voice, it must transform itself beyond the economic- or trade-centric association, and come up with a roadmap for deepening its political union and integration.
The road ahead is bumpy. Bon courage ASEAN!
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