When Asean leaders gathered last weekend in Myanmar, the predicted weather was for high temperatures with a chance of storms. The political atmosphere proved similar, with lightning-rod issues electrifying the regional group's first summit of the year.
Disputes in the South China Sea demanded attention, with strained relations between China and some Asean members coming to the boil over new developments. Just days before the summit, Vietnam and China traded accusations over the ramming of ships as Beijing placed a rig in disputed waters to begin drilling for oil. Meanwhile the Philippines had arrested 11 Chinese nationals for illegal fishing, and China was demanding their release.
Other Asean members face domestic problems, most visibly Thailand. The Kingdom was represented only by deputy caretaker premier, Phongthep Thepkanjana, following the Constitutional Court’s decision last week to remove prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and nine other ministers on charges of abusing power.
What can Asean do in disputes involving China? In face of its members’ domestic problems, can Asean progress to be an economic community? How could Myanmar, chairing the group for the first time, cope?
On the South China Sea, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung aired the accusation that China had committed “dangerous and serious violations”. Complaints about China were also issued by Manila. No one contradicted these voices but without Beijing present, the group fairly declined to judge the issue.
The summit was never expected to tackle it. The much more modest aim was to avoid a disaster akin to events two years ago when then-chair Cambodia pushed the group to an impasse by appearing to favour China over territory disputes.
Myanmar, which is chairing Asean for the first time and also enjoys a close relationship with Beijing, was hardly likely to rock the boat. Though the country has opened its doors to others, including the US, the Chinese presence is strong in the economy and a permanent fact because of their long, shared border.
But rather than a deafening silence, a positive step was taken with agreement on a statement that highlighted “serious concerns” in the South China Sea and called for restraint. This, however, did not take sides. After all, some Asean claimants have taken their own steps to begin resource exploration.
In this context, Asean and its current chair have done the right, if discreet, thing to address the issue while maintaining neutrality and an even-handed leadership.
Fairness and discretion were also evident in the approach to Thailand’s crisis. In the past, such an issue would likely have passed without comment under the principle of non-interference in a matter of domestic politics. As Asean moves towards a community, however, there is more need for such issues to be addressed.
Yet while Cambodian Premier Hun Sen proposed a statement be given by leaders, only Asean foreign ministers did so. This moreover was non-partisan in expressing fully support for dialogue, democratic principles and the rule of law in dealing with the challenges in Thailand.
Again, this was something of a challenge for the group, especially given that the Hun Sen government has previously sided with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and is itself facing similar street protests that challenge its legitimacy. Again, a middle path seems to have prevailed, with Asean neither falling into silence nor allowing any one side to speak for the region.
This may not seem like much, but it helps to remember that even the great powers cannot command outcomes on such issues. Indeed, US President Barack Obama only recently toured the region, but the security assurances he gave have done nothing to prevent the recent clashes over maritime territory.
In this context, it may be wise for a grouping of merely middle-size and smaller countries to preserve its role and credibility, even at the cost of curbing ambition. Asean is weathering, rather than seeking to control, these storms.
For some ambition, we have to look instead to the group’s own agenda. The summit focused on the timely realisation of the Asean Economic Community by 2015 and strengthening the group’s institutions and decision-making processes. Behind this technical and bureaucratic language is an effort to position the group so that it can be more unified and decisive in future.
While not grabbing the headlines, Asean members also considered ways to move ahead on negotiations with China on a number of issues. These include not only the Code of Conduct at sea, but also broader and deeper economic cooperation. Progress towards the integration as a single economic community is also key to its continued competitiveness and relevance to the region in both business and politics.
There are items on this agenda on which Asean can and should progress. There are controversies and storms beyond control that must simply be weathered. The wisdom of this summit, the first hosted by Myanmar, was in seeking to judge which was which.
Simon Tay is chairman at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and also teaches international law at the National University of Singapore.