THE issue on the West Philippine Sea (South China sea) remains a daunting challenge for the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and has given rise to a serious question about the organization’s course in the next 50 years, a former official of the United States (US) defense department said.
Amy Searight, senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, said the South China Sea (SCS) issue has divided Asean as some member states have come under intense pressure from China to support its position.
Speaking before the “Asean at Fifty: The Way Forward” conference on Thursday, Searight said Asean needs to have leaders who really want to lead the organization and get things done to ensure its relevance in the coming years.
China, she said, wants Asean to support its position on the SCS dispute that it should be dealt with only on a bilateral basis and that Asean as an organization should not have a collective voice on how disputes should be managed.
Searight noted that such division among Asean member countries was witnessed during the chairmanship of Cambodia in 2012 when the Asean foreign ministers meeting failed, for the first time in the association’s history to issue a joint communique.
It happened again in 2015 in Malaysia during the Asean defense ministers meeting when a planned joint declaration was changed after China rejected to any mention of the SCS.
“To fulfill its potential, Asean will need to find a way forward to maintain its centrality and forge greater unity. This will take leadership and political will, courage and determination,” added Searight in the forum hosted by the Carlos P. Romulo Foundation, and Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute (ADRi).
However, she noted that the expected adoption of the framework of the Code of Conduct in the West Philippine Sea is a positive step considering that Asean and China have been discussing the proposal to have a code for decades.
But Searight maintained the code should be binding in order for it to have any real effect.
Asean and China are expected to endorse the code framework during the 50th Asean foreign ministers meeting.
Ambassador Pou Sothirak, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said that the future prospect of Asean depends on its ability to address long standing issues internally and externally.
“Asean must be able to act as a credible driver of all regional security mechanisms by strengthening centrality, forging stronger leadership and strictly adhering to the rule-based regional order to bring about a real prospect in diverting and pacifying tension,” he added.
Former foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario in his closing remarks noted that Asean has come a long way in its first half-century and is crucial in bringing stability to the region.
He added that Asean has proven itself resilient, flexible, relevant, pragmatic and a force for peace and progress.
“Asean helped bring stability to a region torn by the Cold War. It has had a meaningful part in building the region’s political, security, economic and socio-cultural spheres,” he said.