Richard Javad Heydarian, Manila
To save the principle of ASEAN centrality, the regional body should transcend its consensus-based decision-making and embrace minilateral arrangements on divisive issues.
The regional body is increasingly suffering from a ‘middle institutional trap’. The type of decision-making arrangements that enabled it to reach its current stage of institutional maturity are insufficient to meet its newer challenges. In particular, the rise of China and its growing assertiveness are not only disturbing the regional security architecture but also undermining ASEAN’s internal cohesion and its quest for centrality in East Asian affairs.
The ‘ASEAN way’, where consensus and consultation undergird decision-making regimes, is no longer up to the task. The regional body’s unanimity-based decision-making mechanism has unwittingly handed a de facto veto power to weaker links that are under the influence of external powers.
Moving forward, the body has two choices. It can modify its institutional configuration by adopting an ‘ASEAN–X’ or ‘qualified majority’ voting modality on politico-security affairs, or it can fall into irrelevance.
This is poignantly evidenced by the South China Sea disputes. After it failed to embrace wholesale institutional innovation, the only way forward is a constructive form of ‘ASEAN minilateralism’, where likeminded and influential countries in the region coordinate their diplomatic and strategic calculations vis-a-vis South China Sea disputes.
In 2016, the leaders of ASEAN displayed encouraging unity — or at least a semblance of it — during the Sunnylands Summit with former US president Barack Obama. At the end of the meeting, the two sides released a joint statement that called for shared ‘commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to threat or use of force, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law and the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea’.
So both sides agreed that not only should the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) be a basis for resolution of disputes, but also mentioned ‘legal processes’, which could be interpreted as an implicit statement of support for the Philippines’ decision to resort to compulsory arbitration against China in accordance with Article 287, Annex VII of UNCLOS.