“Consensus by Accommodation” by Hoang Thi Ha

2018/54, 8 May 2018

The leaked Zero Draft of the Chairman’s Statement of the 32nd ASEAN Summit in Singapore with member states’ attributed inputs on the South China Sea (SCS) has put ASEAN under scrutiny and criticism. ASEAN’s decision-making on this matter was disparaged as “consensus by deletion” because several strong formulations originally proposed by some member states were omitted or watered down in the final Chairman’s Statement.

In retrospect, this should not come as a surprise. First, it is the long-standing practice for each ASEAN member state to convey its national positions, which are often set at a high bar in the first round of consultation on the Zero Draft. Second, the Chair country performs the role of moderating the spectrum of divergent views to reach a common ground acceptable to all. This is part and parcel of the drafting process – the consultation phase before consensus can be reached.

Seen from a different angle, this episode exemplified the laborious but necessary process of consensus building within ASEAN on the sensitive issue of the SCS. The final Chairman’s Statement of the 32nd Summit converged different views from ASEAN member states into the middle ground. No member state is marginalised but none would singularly prevail either. The consolidation of inputs was a give-and-take process whereby the national position of a member state must be moderated by those of other members and by the overall interest of ASEAN and the region. In other words, it is consensus through consultation and by accommodation.

Traditionally, as the term ‘Chairman’s Statement’ implies, the Chair has prerogative over the final text while taking into account the concerns and sentiments of other member states. Hence, views from all member states are sought through the Zero Draft. Although this is not a negotiated document, the Chair traditionally tries and, in this year’s case, managed to bring everyone on board to reflect a collective position on the SCS issue.

Given the ASEAN way and the divergent strategic outlooks of individual member states, one should not expect any “revolution” in ASEAN’s approach to the SCS. But it has not been static either. For example, the principles of freedom of overflight and non-militarisation, full respect for legal and political processes, and expression of concerns over developments at sea, are new elements that were introduced only a few years ago, demonstrating ASEAN’s response to the evolving situation on the ground.

Hence, the SCS paragraph in the 32nd Summit reflected all the key elements of ASEAN’s principled position on the SCS, namely: (i) reiterating fundamental principles, including peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law, freedom of navigation and overflight, and non-militarisation; (ii) noting the concerns expressed by some member states over the developments at sea; and (iii) keeping the momentum forward in the Code of Conduct (COC) negotiations. If anything, the exposé of the drafting process demonstrates the continuous challenge of carrying these key elements forward. There may be “nothing very earth-shaking about it” as noted by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, but it should not be taken for granted either, because it could have been less or even nothing, as seen from some previous Chairmanship.

The alternative to consultation and consensus which is voting will end up with “winners” and “losers” within ASEAN. This will engender unhappiness and distrust among members. Certainty of outcome of voting can be counter-productive, ending with a divided ASEAN. Where the SCS issue is concerned, there is no quick fix or a perfect formula for ASEAN. ASEAN common position on the SCS must be attained by diligently bridging the gap and building consensus among its member states time and again.

Ms Hoang Thi Ha is Lead Researcher II (Political and Security Affairs) at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

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