By Former Diplomat
Political security, economic growth and stability of the Asia Pacific region in the 21st century are undermined by major powers by way of maneuvering their foreign policies, hidden agendas and national interests.
Many seem to believe that the 19th century was the diamond era of Europe, 20th century was the U.S. hegemony, and the 21st century deserved for Asia to grow, but Asia must unite and show clear position in order to advance his chance.
Asia is currently growing, but it has its own issues that are being involved by the west and other stakeholders. One of those outstanding issues is the South China Sea disputes which are partly involved by the west as it is located in the Asia Pacific rim. This particular issue has been topped of agendas at most of regional and international meetings and forums.
For ASEAN-China relations, it marks two-and-a-half decades of dialogue and cooperation since 1991. ASEAN is closely associated with China, which is the 2nd biggest economy in the world. China has also become one of the largest and major economic partners with many countries around the world, including the U.S.
Since 2009, China remains the largest trading partner of ASEAN with the total trade volume of about US$ 370 billion, according to ASEAN statistic as of December 2015. With a potential massive market of almost 2 billion people, ASEAN and China are on the right track to achieve the twin goals of two-way trading and investment of US$1 trillion and US$150 billion, respectively by 2020 as if fully committed by both sides.
However, the current challenges in the South China Sea which have caused some level of discomfort among claimant states and parties concerned are threatening peace, security and stability in the region which need to have active dialogues and consultations, to understand each other, and to seek appropriate solutions at any mean possible.
ASEAN, on the other hand, is still grouped as old and new members or is simply known as ASEAN-6 which comprises of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, while ASEAN-4 or CLMV consists of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. As long as political topic is discussed, ASEAN are considered divided into three camps: ones are seen as pro-U.S., ones are closer to China and the others are pretended to be neutral. However, ASEAN is viewed as more positive due to the fact that it upholds its principles of “ASEAN Way” which has been characterized by the principles of tolerance, restraint, accommodation, consensus, consultation, equality and national resilience.
One basic principle is that all ASEAN's decision-making must be based on consultation and consensus as stated in its Charter and this is why ASEAN can survive half a century since its inception in 1967.
On the sensitive issue of the South China Sea, ASEAN and China should not allow this particular issue to grow and affect the overall existing close cooperation and friendship. Both sides should value the existing cooperation in a broader picture for 25 years. This strong bond of friendship does not only exist between government to-government, but it also happens everywhere, from business to business, people to people, culture, history and so on. On the contrary, confrontation and higher tensions will bring no benefits to ASEAN, to China and to the region, especially peoples.
In response to the blame that was imposed on Cambodia when this small nation chaired ASEAN in 2012, the fact was that the Philippines, which is widely known as the U.S. closest ally, and Vietnam, one of the claimant states in the South China Sea--had stuck their plot to color Cambodia through a maneuver that block the issuance of Joint Communiqué.
Failing to issue that JC in 2012--was not Cambodia’s fault, but by the two countries as they know well that any decision must abide by the principle of consensus. Let's say if Cambodia were to chair ASEAN this year, the JC could not issue either since the Philippines and Vietnam may try their efforts to block it by inserting onto the JC the wordings concerning arbitration award of the Permanent court of Arbitration on 12 July.
The Philippines has never consulted with ASEAN before bringing the arbitration case to the court in The Hague. But only after the court's ruling was in favor to the Philippines, they (PP and VN) tried to put pressure on ASEAN to support the court's verdict. The question now is that who has attempted to divide ASEAN? Who wants to break ASEAN’s principle?
It is suspicious if the Philippines and Vietnam may have their own hidden agenda through which they may want to pave the way for their chairmanships, meaning that if ASEAN could not issue the JC again in 2016, it will set as precedent when these two countries chair the ASEAN in 2017 and 2020 respectively.
Let's take a look at another ASEAN member like Singapore who is a country coordinator for ASEAN-China dialogue relations for 2015-2018. Singapore, is one of the most reliable friends and close strategic partners of the U.S. There is strong hope that Singapore should perform its important role on behalf of ASEAN to work with China. But at one point, her Ambassador-at-large had suggested that Cambodia be expelled from ASEAN. Such comment is ridiculous to ASEAN practice but further deteriorate the relations among stakeholders. The Cambodian Embassy in Singapore should work with Singaporean government in order to seek clarifications whether the Ambassador’s remarks were his personal or the government views.
On July 29, Senior Minister Prak Sokhonn, Minister of Foreign Affairs and international Cooperation of Cambodia said Cambodia has sacrificed the most to uphold ASEAN’s principles and interest.
He said Cambodia maintains its neural position by not taking side to any party but to contribute to avoiding aggravating the situation in the South China Sea through consultations with all parties concerned, while at the same time to help avoid damaging ASEAN and China relations because of the bilateral issues concerning with a few ASEAN member states and China; and lastly to uphold and respect universally recognized principles of the international law and basic principles of ASEAN.
If there was no neutral role played by Cambodia at this juncture, and the wording on arbitration were inserted on the JC, the Philippines felt happy, but ASEAN breached its unity and basic principle. And what happens if China had walked out from the Declaration of the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), signed by ASEAN and China in 2002 and the implementation of DOC and its negations toward the Code of Conduct (COC) will be spoiled.
By then, many may see it clearly that ASEAN-China would confront each other and the disputes will get worst, the whole Asia Pacific region will be affected while the 21st century of Asia will be at total risk.
In conclusion, with Cambodia's role and position, ASEAN is joyful and China is happy with which China offered ASEAN particular pledges on early conclusion of a Code for Unplanned Encounter at Sea (CUES) for navy ships in the South China Sea; hotlines laid down for Senior Officials of the foreign ministries of ASEAN and China; setting timeframe for COC framework by the middle 2017 and to work on COC text. And looking ahead, the South China Sea will be a sea of peace, stability and prosperity and the prospect of the 21st century for Asia will come true.