Insight : Good and bad news from the 20th ASEAN Summit

Jakarta (The Jakarta Post/ANN) - The 20th Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, just ended with both good and bad news.

On the positive side, recent developments in Myanmar clearly gave ASEAN something of which it can be proud. In the past, especially during the convening of an ASEAN summit, the grouping was always presented with a major embarrassment when questions were raised by the international community regarding the lack of tangible progress in ASEAN¡¯s attempt to encourage change in Myanmar. This time, ASEAN could proudly declare to the world that change has finally arrived in the country.

Days before the start of the summit, the by-elections in Myanmar ended with a clear sign of victory for democracy. The National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory, taking 43 out of 45 contested seats in the parliament. While this victory would not change the fact that the parliament is still dominated by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the appointed military MPs, it does add a sense of credibility to the democratisation process initiated by President Thein Sein. In fact, the credit should indeed go to his government for allowing the elections to proceed in what many saw as a ¡°free, fair and transparent¡± manner. More importantly, President Thein Sein¡¯s quick recognition of the results is certainly commendable.

It is in this context that ASEAN leaders, at the end of the summit, called for all sanctions against Myanmar to be lifted. It is indeed in the interests of the international community, especially ASEAN, to ensure that the ongoing process in Myanmar would become irreversible. That requires sincere, constant and immediate support of Myanmar, especially in terms of economic assistance, increased trade and investment.

The support base for President Thein Sein¡¯s political reforms, especially among the military elite, could be under stress if the government could not demonstrate the tangible results of that process in the economic arena. And, ASEAN itself still needs the support and partnership of others ¡ª especially the United States and Europe ¡ª in order to help Myanmar.

Unfortunately, this progress has been marred by bad news coming out of the summit. The first is the question of Timor Leste¡¯s membership in ASEAN. While Indonesia continued to argue for early admission of the country into ASEAN, others, especially Singapore, are still not yet convinced. The issue continues to be placed ¡°under discussion¡± which, in reality, means that Timor Leste would need to wait longer before it officially becomes the 11th member of the grouping. However, Indonesia needs to continuously remind other ASEAN members that it is the collective responsibility of the grouping to support the fledging nation by admitting it into ASEAN sooner rather than later.

The second piece of bad news, and indeed one with more devastating effects on ASEAN¡¯s unity, is the rift among ASEAN members over the question of the South China Sea. The most contentious issue has been on the order by which the Code of Conduct (CoC) on the South China Sea should be drafted. Some members argued that China should be invited to sit with ASEAN to jointly draft the CoC from the beginning.

Others, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, were of the opinion that it was imperative for ASEAN to forge a common position first before it presented the draft to China for discussion and negotiation. Regardless the merits of each position, this disagreement clearly shows diverging strategic orientations among ASEAN member states on how to deal with China.

Indonesia, as an honest broker in the search for a peaceful resolution to the South China Sea dispute, needs to step in and play a more pro-active role in breaking this impasse. In this regard, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has stressed that ¡°ASEAN first and foremost must have a solid consolidated position.¡± The minister, however, at the same time reminded ASEAN members that some forms of communication with China on the issue were also necessary. In other words, while a unified ASEAN position on the CoC is a matter of principle, it is also not realistic to leave China completely in the dark in the process.

ASEAN, therefore, needs to intensify its internal discussion on the issue and find a consensus. A protracted division among ASEAN countries would only benefit China. One of the feasible approaches to break the impasse would be for ASEAN to start drafting the CoC while at the same time seeking inputs from all key stakeholders and interested parties, including China.

After all, it is with China that ASEAN will ultimately sign the CoC. If ASEAN can do this, we would have a major reason to celebrate the next ASEAN summit at the end of the year.

The writer is the executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta.

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