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"The Veto: ASEAN’s Growing Liability", a Commentary by Jason Salim

Commentary 2016/34, 26 July 2016

After three days of intense negotiations into the wee hours, Asean has finally issued its traditional joint communique following the 49th Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting (AMM) in Vientiane, Laos.

However, this joint communique was issued after Cambodia was reported to have wielded its veto to block the draft. The mere exercise of this veto alone suggests that China may have once again exerted diplomatic pressure on its closest ally within ASEAN to achieve this undesired outcome. This joint communique will inevitably be viewed through the lenses of this initial failure.

It is interesting to note that the joint communique was issued without any reference to the Arbitral Tribunal’s award in the Philippines v. China case. The Philippines had long insisted for the joint communique to explicitly mention the Arbitral Tribunal’s award. On the other hand, Cambodia believed that the South China Sea disputes was a bilateral issue between China and the respective claimant states, and should not merit a place on the communique since it was not an ASEAN issue. The fact that any communique was issued is proof that compromise was still possible even if both sides remain intractable in their positions. The question, though, is whether ASEAN needs the kind of compromise that will not result in any substantive result, especially on such an important topic as the South China Sea.

ASEAN diplomats have developed a reputation for their scrupulous discretion and aversion to megaphone diplomacy. It is therefore surprising to see how willing they were to expose Cambodia to journalists, albeit anonymously, as the major obstacle to achieving consensus on the joint communique. China would do well to heed this uncharacteristically blunt display of exasperation at an ASEAN member state by its fellow member states. If there is one lesson to be learnt from the events of the past few days, it is that it will always be in China’s interest to allow ASEAN to function as a cohesive organisation. The alternative to that would be China being roundly tarred by all as the real reason for ASEAN’s dysfunction.

ASEAN needs to discuss the previously taboo subject of an "ASEAN minus X" approach in discussing sensitive matters. There is already precedence for such an approach – the ASEAN Economic Community might have already been established on 31 December 2015, but Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam have been given until 2018 to fully implement the necessary programs and regulations in their respective countries. However, in this case the approach only works to grant a grace period to member states that might need more time, and defers eventual acceptance instead of outright and indefinite recusal from the entire programme. Should such an approach be expanded into ASEAN’s Political and Security Community, ASEAN member states should consider allowing decisions to be agreed upon by a “supermajority” of 8 or 9 member states, with the reservations of those who were opposed be noted down in the final communique. This benefits ASEAN two ways – it allows proposals agreed upon by a significant majority of the member states to be implemented notwithstanding the recorded objections of those opposed, and the “name-and-shame” effect will provide less incentive for member states to block “supermajority decisions.”

A frank and forthright discussion on ASEAN's next steps will determine whether it can remain credible as a regional organisation expressing collective regional concerns. The Vientiane “experience” should not be seen as a failure, but instead as the impetus towards a better ASEAN.

Jason Salim is Research Officer at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Assistant Production Editor of ASEANFocus.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.