There was a whopping great elephant in the room at last weekend’s annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta. Though the region’s leaders spoke, as they do, about peace and co-operation, the sad fact remained that Cambodia and Thailand, two of ASEAN’s 10 constituents, are at each other’s throats.
The breakdown of relations between Phnom Penh and Bangkok – the outcome of months of border skirmishes over a disputed temple – has plunged ASEAN into an existential crisis. The organisation’s critics have long complained that it is nothing more than a talking shop. But even talking shops serve an important purpose: they encourage leaders to meet in person, to shake hands, and to air their grievances over lunch rather than through military action. If nothing else, ASEAN was there to keep the peace.
ASEAN’s failure to perform this most basic function in the Thai-Cambodian case has raised serious questions about what the organisation actually does. Southeast Asia is a region with a proud history of non-intervention; its philosophy, the “ASEAN Way”, emphasises a go-lightly approach to international relations. Those in Europe who loathe EU red tape no doubt dream of a regional body that treads so softly. But ASEAN has gone to the opposite extreme: it treads so softly that it has no discernible influence on important events, even those in its own backyard.
“Within the region people say the core contribution that ASEAN should make is peace and co-operation between members,” says Jurgen Haacke of the London School of Economics. “ASEAN isn’t being successful at that right now, but that’s no reason to give up.” Indonesia, ASEAN’s largest member and the summit’s host, clearly agreed and took the rare step of departing from the “ASEAN Way”, corralling the Thai and Cambodian leaders into a room and encouraging them to open a dialogue. There was no reconciliation, but there was at least a sense that ASEAN had tried to apply some pressure. “It was the first time the chair made a significant effort to engage in preventive diplomacy,” says Haacke. “For ASEAN that’s a step in a positive direction.”
Part of ASEAN’s problem, though, is that it doesn’t know which side to blame. While some have accused Thailand of provoking the confrontation as a distraction from the country’s domestic problems, others within the association feel that Cambodia betrayed the ASEAN Way by appealing to third parties, chiefly the UN and the International Court of Justice, as referees.
War between the two neighbours could still be averted, and ASEAN will do wonders for its own reputation if it can be the one to broker the peace. It certainly needs to bank some goodwill. In Jakarta, ASEAN leaders floated the possibility that Burma, a member despite its atrocious human rights record, might be allowed to chair the association in 2014. If that happens, many people in Southeast Asia and beyond will accuse ASEAN of far worse things than irrelevance.