This Roundtable Discussion will explore the highly topical developments in the Southeast Asian region. Topics for discussion include the progress of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Community 2015 as well as regional security and the issue of the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea.
Foreign Affairs Undersecterary Evan P. Garcia is a career foreign service officer. He joined the Foreign Service in 1982. In 2010-2013 he was the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary and Permanent Representative of the Phillippine Mission to the United Nations and and other International Organisations in Geneva, Switzerland. Prior to this, Undersecretary Garcia served in various capacities in the home office such as the Office of Asian and Pacific affairs, Office of ASEAN affairs and the Office of the Secretary. In his foreign assignments, he has served in the Philippine Embassy in Tokyo and Washington D.C. He has a licence in International Relations and Political Science from Graduate Institute for International Studies in Geneva.
The purpose of this Roundtable Discussion was to analyse and debate the further development of ASEAN as well as the prospects for regional security, in particular taking the territorial dispute in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea into account. In his opening remarks Dr Mika Aaltola emphasized that the developments in the Southeast Asian region are very topical and of growing international importance in security and economic terms. FIIA stays abreast of these changes with its Asia cluster which closely follows and examines the regional situation in East Asia as well as its crucial global impact.
In his keynote speech Deputy Foreign Minister Evan P. Garcia outlined that under the condition of changing international circumstances and a variety of different interpretations of interests, the Philippine approach is based on respect for the rule of law. Through the promotion of this principle the country has been able to implement important governance reforms in recent years which turned out to be very beneficial for instance due to a decrease in corruption. The significance of the rule of law has also been reassured at a recent ASEAN summit, defining it as a vital precondition for the establishment of stability, fairness and justice.
Keeping this in mind, Deputy Foreign Minister Garcia explained that the Southeast Asian region is still highly influenced by experiences and dividing lines deriving from the Cold War. Under this precondition, it must be acknowledged that ASEAN – although it is not as integrated as the EU – was very successful in partly reunifying a divided region. While the association based originally on a strong anti-communist attitude, the organization ensures nowadays the protection of peace and stability in the region. It also supported, as well as European partners, the establishment of the intrastate peace process in the Philippines. The fact that ASEAN operates for more than 40 years today – despite major global changes – accounts for its persistence and growing institutionalization, indicated for instance through its charter from 2008, which turned it into a legal entity. In addressing mostly Western critique, Mr Garcia emphasized that despite some often mentioned weaknesses ASEAN is indeed a success when its roots are taken into consideration. The most important factor in these terms is the mechanism of consensus, which is at the same time also one main point of Western criticism: Instead of decision-making through majority vote, agreements and compromises are reached through negotiation.
With regard to the most important issue in the region, the territorial dispute about the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea, Mr Garcia characterized the problem as similar to recent disagreements on the Black Sea and the Arctic which are driven by diverging interests of the involved countries. The Philippines accept China’s peaceful rise, however they argue for the importance of respecting the rule of law, in the case of the respective dispute, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In the past five years the region was moulded by a rather unilateral Chinese approach in terms of claiming disputed territory. Concerns about these developments were also expressed by ASEAN which called repeatedly for a persistent application of the rule of law in the contested area. Finland is in these regards not requested to take sides, however the Finnish promotion of a peaceful solution of the dispute based on the country’s rich tradition in terms of the rule of law is considered to be very fruitful.
Finally, the prospects for a further development of the cooperation in ASEAN are declared to be quite promising. The former top-down approach is more and more replaced by a bottom-up perspective which accounts for deeper integration in economic and political terms in the future.
In his comments Johan Schalin emphasized that he is very well aware of criticism about the low achievements of ASEAN in comparison with the EU, which he considers as unfair, taking into account ASEAN’s survival even after enormous changes, while promoting modest but constant progress. Despite that, there are also obvious weaknesses in ASEAN’s decision-making and a lack of political cohesion and administrational structures. Nevertheless, ASEAN has shown in the past that especially in critical and urgent situations like for instance after natural catastrophes, it is prepared to act. In terms of Finland’s Southeast Asia policy Mr Schalin underlined the traditional importance of trade relations and development policies. Security issues were not on the top of the agenda in the past but attention to them increased in recent years. In relation to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea Mr Schalin expressed Finland’s commitment to a peaceful solution of the conflict based on the standards of international law and its willingness to share experiences of settling border disagreement in the Baltic Sea.
After these speeches the floor was opened for comments and questions from the audience. In the following lively discussion the issue of other claims from different bordering countries in the region came up, which might be overshadowed by the main territorial disagreement. Hence, although these disputes are all in all maybe less threatening, joint negotiations are considered as the only way to settle them in a peaceful way. Furthermore, the main drivers of the dispute were discussed. On the one hand, the conflict is connected with a variety of mainly strategic and economic factors, for instance in terms of natural resource exploitation. On the other hand, multiple actors – especially a rising China, while it is trying to adapt to its new role – are also crucial in understanding the development of the conflict. However, not only the role of regional powers was examined, but also the position and importance of the United States were mentioned: Even though the USA might be exploited for legitimizing or challenging actions of several actors, the dispute is quite clearly framed as an issue of regional security. Thus, despite its global impact, it can only be settled in this context. Another topic of debate was the often criticized approach of ASEAN to act based on the consensus principle and the closely connected question of how to find appropriate fora to negotiate about a peaceful solution for the dispute. Although a comprehensive revolution of the structures of ASEAN is not likely to happen in the near future, a multilateral, open discussion of claims, also involving international actors is inevitable for a comprehensive conflict resolution. Finally, the economic dimension, in particular concerning potentially endangered trade relations, was taken into consideration. Despite some consequences in this regard, which are already visible, the involved countries agreed in general on a distinct divide between their more and more evolving trade cooperation and their disagreement in terms of territorial borders.