THE distinguished 19th century British statesman Henry John Temple, the 3rd Viscount Palmerston, was responsible for originating the concept that there are no permanent allies or permanent enemies, only permanent interests. These are words that could very well be spoken by any one of the officials and politicians maneuvering in the complex realm of global diplomacy today.
Year in and year out, the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations rotates among the members. Year in and year out, we hear the same disagreements on how a joint statement should be worded, or a joint communiqué on a particular topic, like a more belligerent stand against North Korea and its ambitions of nuclear military power.
This time around, the channels of diplomatic sources at the Asean foreign ministers currently meeting in Manila, are abuzz about the strong dissenting voice of Vietnam urging the 10-member regional bloc to take a stronger stance against China’s Asian hegemonic ambitions and creeping expansionism in disputed waters.
During last year’s summit in Vientiane, Laos, the heads of state and government were not able to come up with a definitive stance on the maritime disputes in the South China Sea, as Cambodia opposed any mention of the landmark ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague against Beijing and in favor of the Philippines. The information was leaked to the media by “diplomatic sources.”
In fact, an exasperated diplomat based in the Asean secretariat in Jakarta told an international news service then that it was like déjà vu how the heads of state and government were behaving in Vientiane—referring to their lack of unity and indecisiveness in handling the resulting tension from China’s seizure of the Panatag or Scarborough Shoal. The shoal, located 198 kilometers west of Subic Bay, forms a triangle-shaped chain of reefs and rocks, including an inner lagoon within its 150-square kilometer area.
While the Asean foreign ministers have endorsed a framework code of conduct on the West Philippine Sea—as Manila refers to the South China Sea within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone—the Philippines is maintaining its preference for a legally binding document. Its position is understandable considering that the latest land reclamations of China overlap its sovereign territory.
But diplomatic sources say that is not the case at all, and that Vietnam is alone in lobbying for stronger language on the South China Sea issue, with the Philippines as host and chairman of Asean 2017 taking a more diplomatic approach in light of President Rodrigo Duterte’s preferred policy of cajoling, instead of openly confronting, China.
These have all the makings of more dissenting voices emerging in the run-up to the culminating summit in November, voices not necessarily only Asean in origin but also those of China, Japan and the United States and their respective interests in the regional bloc in whose territorial waters traverse an estimated $5 trillion of trade annually.
The issue of Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions has also been commented on by diplomatic sources, some of them likely from Asean member states, who claim that the Asean foreign ministers’ statement on the developments in the Korean Peninsula are a rehash of what was issued last April. They said that the statement needed to be fresh, have more bite, with a call for diplomatic and economic sanctions in the aftermath of the latest intercontinental ballistic missile tests launched by Pyongyang last month.
“We reiterate our support for the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner, call for the exercise of self-restraint, and underscore the importance of creating conditions conducive for dialogue to de-escalate tensions,” the statement reads.
Clearly, the 50-year-old Asean has to evolve into a true regional bloc by developing a unified voice that reflects the aspirations of a genuine Asean Economic Community and its population of more than 600 million, not the vested interest of a single member state alone that panders in turn to the interest of any purveyor of influence and lucre aspiring to dominate the larger Asian region.