Ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are meeting this week in Brunei to discuss the region’s major security issues.
Analysts at a security conference in Washington earlier this month said such issues present a test for the grouping’s ability to move to a greater level of political integration by the end of 2015.
After Cambodia’s divisive chairmanship of Asean last year, analysts say they are cautiously optimistic that Asean is in the process of achieving a degree of integration in the next two years.
Questions over Asean’s ability to come together on security issues and political issues were among those asked by experts and observers during a South China Sea conference held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington earlier this month.
The South China Sea, a major international shipping lane where several Asean states have claims against China, is a major regional concern. But Asean’s 10 members will face many more challenges as it seeks to integrate, analysts say.
Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra, told VOA Khmer that Asean’s political and strategic cooperation is a “work in progress.”
“As 2015 approaches, I think we will see incremental progress on the basis of consensus,” he said. “If there is anybody out there that is not comfortable, they won’t proceed.”
By the end of 2015, Asean aims to achieve a much higher degree of political, security, and cultural integration between its 10 members. But while the less sensitive economic integration appears to be on track, many analysts question whether a more unified political community is possible.
Conflicts between Asean members on issues like territorial disputes and democratization remain major obstacles.
Just last July during the Asean Regional Forum, chaired by Cambodia in Phnom Penh, ministers for the first time in the group’s history could not issue a joint statement
because of mistrust and disagreement over the South China Sea.
Greg Poling, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Southeast Asia program in Washington, says that the main problem is that Asean is an organization founded on principles of non-interference and protection of sovereignty. That leaves the political community vaguely defined.
“I mean there’s doubt that if you don’t at least get the Aseans themselves into some kind of consensus, not necessarily on where the dispute should end but how to manage it, then you are going to have a certain level of strategic mistrust,” he said.
Trust among Asean members was seriously eroded last year when Cambodia was seen as siding with China on the sea dispute. The Philippines in particular was unhappy with Cambodia’s handling of the issues. This led to a number of subsequent diplomatic spats well into Asean’s last major summit in November 2012.
Henry Bensurto, Jr., former secretary general of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs’ maritime commission, tells VOA Khmer that the Philippines and Cambodia are now on good terms again and that such disagreements are just part of the integration process.
“I think this was a lesson learned by everybody, and this year Asean has taken a different direction in terms of discussing the issue,” he said. “And I think at the end of the day this is good for us and solidarity and centrality.”
That means more discussion as Asean ministers meet this week in Brunei for a regional forum to discuss security issues, he said.
Analysts say some degree of trust has been restored since last year’s row, but for Asean to move to a more integrated political community requires more than just trust.
Christian Le Miere, a senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, is less optimistic about an integrated Asean political community given that it lacks strong institutions and shared values.
“I think Asean could benefit from a slightly more candid and frank rhetoric around its integration,” he said.
And even though Asean is not the European Union, it can still find lessons there, he said. “Europe benefits from long historical animosities between these countries. I mean, they are quite happy to speak their own mind.”
Admitting tensions among Asean members and putting them out in the open could be helpful, he said.
Many analysts agree that the region is moving on the right track, albeit very slowly. But democratization remains another challenge.
Many are looking at the reforms under way in Burma as evidence that Asean is on the right track.
Poling, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says less democratic countries like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam will be affected by the changes in Burma, also known as Myanmar.
“You look at Vietnam,” he said. “Vietnam is furious because Myanmar was the guy that made Vietnam look good for the last 20 years. Now Vietnam’s this year’s press index, Vietnam is the lowest in Southeast Asia, not Myanmar. It’s a new game to them. They are back to being the bad guy.”
He says only time will tell if Burma will hold that promise.
For Thayer, at the Australian Defense Force Academy, Asean’s success will be a question of how its members actually define integration.
“No one has ever defined it,” he said. “On that day you don’t press a button and a light opens and all of the sudden there is a community. It’s a process. But when the end of 2015 comes, we could do a score card, and there will be some pluses and negatives. And in my estimation, the pluses will slightly outnumber the negatives, because they are moving in the right way.”
That process continues with the regional forum in Brunei this week, as well as a full summit in October.