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Time for timid Asean to show its teeth

The bloc must do more over territorial disputes with China, the annual haze and political crises in member countries

Meeting for the first time under the chairmanship of Myanmar last week, Asean ministers voiced concern over hot issues in the region but also ignored several essential topics.

Chief among the areas of concern whose importance no one denied was the South China Sea, which is at the centre of a conflict between giant partner China and Asean members including the Philippines and Vietnam.

The meeting of Asean foreign ministers last week took place after China imposed a new law that bans foreign vessels from entering Beijing-claimed territory in the disputed South China Sea.

The law stems from ongoing maritime conflicts for which clear ideas for a solution have yet to be formulated by the regional bloc.

Instead, Asean's firm stance has been to call on the disputing parties to stick to peaceful means in their search for solutions.

Accordingly, the latest statement by Asean foreign ministers called on all parties to adhere to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). It urged them to "undertake the full and effective implementation of the DOC in order to build an environment of mutual trust and confidence. They emphasised the need to expeditiously work towards the early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC)."

However, the DOC is a largely toothless pact, and it is difficult to predict when the COC will be finalised and how effective it will be in setting the guidelines for good practice in the trouble waters.

The ministers stressed the importance of upholding Asean's centrality in the evolving regional architecture but, without the ability to tackle regional troubles, such an ambition seems impossible.

Still, at least the ministers at the Myanmar meeting tackled the topic. The same could not be said of a crucial environment issue that creates problems for the region every year.

The haze that shrouded large parts of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia last year hit a record high on the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI). Southern Thailand also suffered from the pollution, caused by slash-and-burn deforestation in Indonesia.

At their summit in Brunei last year, Asean leaders agreed to adopt a trans-boundary haze-monitoring system, but there has been limited progress since then. Developed by Singapore, the monitoring system aims to identify the causes and responsible parties - but it has yet to be installed.

The approaching dry season will almost certainly bring more choking haze. And, once again, Asean ministers will meet, point fingers at one another and decline to take further action. A regional agreement to act on the issue already exists, but some members of the group have been reluctant to honour it due to domestic concerns.

Like its predecessors, the Myanmar Asean meeting failed to touch on the domestic affairs of member countries, despite the fact that these can spill over to affect the whole region. Away from the meeting room, many ministers are looking at the domestic political conflicts in Thailand and Cambodia with worry and concern. But they don't have the courage to speak out. Asean as a group is a potentially valuable source of solutions for the problems of its individual members. But instead it offers only silence.


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