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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.

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.