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Unshackling ASEAN

SINGAPORE – As the Association of Southeast Asian Nations approaches its 50th anniversary next year, its failure to reach a consensus regarding Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea has raised concerns throughout the region. Although the requirement that all decisions be made by consensus enables disparate member states to unite while protecting their national interests, it also limits ASEAN’s effectiveness in dealing with emerging security threats.

The consensus rule explains why ASEAN failed to present a united front after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, and in the subsequent US-led war on terror. Similarly, ASEAN’s response to North Korea’s provocations – such as ongoing nuclear tests and the 2010 attack that sunk the South Korean corvette Cheonan, killing 46 seamen – has been muted, owing to some ASEAN member states’ sympathy for the North Korean regime.

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The territorial disputes in the South China Sea are the strongest indicator yet that ASEAN’s consensus principle is limiting the organization’s effectiveness. The question of how to respond to growing Chinese assertiveness in the region has divided ASEAN member states more deeply than any previous issue has.

At the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in 2012, the organization failed to issue a joint statement for the first time in its history, because Cambodia refused to allow any mention of incidents caused by China in the South China Sea. In July 2016, ASEAN foreign ministers failed to mention in their joint communiqué the landmark ruling against China that had been issued just two weeks before by an international arbitral tribunal on the disputes.

ASEAN’s failure to act on the South China Sea issue is leading member-state governments and citizens to question the organization’s ability “to maintain and enhance peace” – the first purpose listed in its Charter. What’s more, the current stalemate will likely force certain member states to address the issue through other means, which will ultimately jeopardize ASEAN’s regional and international relevance.

ASEAN must solve its consensus dilemma, through either procedural reforms or institutional innovations. For starters, it should follow a previous suggestion, made by the ASEAN Eminent Persons Group in 2006, to introduce majority decision-making. With ASEAN’s range of activities broadening, the EPG observed, it should “consider alternative and flexible decision-making mechanisms,” including voting.

The European Union embraced this governance mechanism long ago, and even within ASEAN there is precedent for majority-vote decision-making, particularly on geopolitical and security issues. For example, the 1995 Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone established a commission that, “failing consensus,” can make decisions by a two-thirds majority.

When ASEAN member states cannot reach a consensus, they should distinguish between two types of issues to determine the path forward: those that have obvious implications for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and domestic autonomy of a member state; and those that have obvious implications for regional security. ASEAN member states should seek consensus in the former case, unless the country in question decides otherwise. But in the latter case, they should have the option to conduct a majority vote.

Accordingly, if an issue has significant regional-security implications and does not concern a given member state’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, or political autonomy, that state should not be allowed to sideline all other member states’ interests at the expense of regional peace.

Another way out of the consensus dilemma is to create new institutional frameworks. For example, an ASEAN Commission for the Management of South China Sea Disputes, operating through majority voting, could establish ASEAN’s position on the issue and liaise with China to resolve disagreements when they arise.

Alternatively, ASEAN member states with territorial claims in the South China Sea could align and include non-claimant ASEAN member states. A South China Sea caucus within ASEAN could shape a common position among its own members ahead of ASEAN-related meetings, and make an ASEAN-wide consensus on the issue more likely.

If these options fail, all like-minded countries in the region, regardless of their South China Sea claims or ASEAN membership, should form a larger caucus to address the issue, by formulating a shared position in region-wide platforms such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit.

In the future, this regional caucus could, if circumstances allowed, evolve into a more comprehensive regional security arrangement that supplements ASEAN-led mechanisms. Including non-member countries could undermine ASEAN’s unity; but that is a tradeoff ASEAN member states will have to accept if they decide to adhere strictly to consensus decision-making.

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That said, the consensus principle should not be abandoned. It is in ASEAN’s best interest to reach a consensus on important issues whenever possible – including on the South China Sea dispute if it proves not to be a serious threat to regional peace. To this end, ASEAN member states should foster more trust, cooperation, and dialogue among themselves, and with China. All ASEAN member states must strike a balance between their respective national interests and broader regional interests.

For its part, China should be more sensitive to ASEAN member states’ security concerns, and act to turn the South China Sea into a haven for peace and prosperity, rather than an arena for tensions and rivalry.