ON the 19th of this month, The Asean Foreign Ministers’ Retreat (AMM Retreat) will take place in the Philippines.
This meeting should be the moment when the consolidation of Asean unity is thoroughly discussed.
For a starter, it is imperative that Asean officials take the centrality of the region into consideration, as well as the need to get the Code of Conduct (CoC) to be fully implemented.
To achieve that, the Asean must support the pledges by its members to conclude the CoC for the South China Sea by the end of this year.
The Philippines, China and Asean members, in general, have agreed in principle on a series of meetings to speed up work on the CoC.
This should lead to the creation of an international legal instrument that would control the behaviour of the signatories in the contentious sea.
To refresh the memories, the CoC was built along the lines of consensus among the Asean, and is the line of conduct that China should adopt in the South China Sea (SCS) conflict.
The Code of Conduct is a long-awaited binding agreement between Asean members and China on how overlapping claims in the SCS (West Philippine Sea) can be managed.
Though China’s intentions are different from the Philippines, this is a moment in time when the Asean will have to shun all pressures from Beijing and unite behind Manilla.
The Foreign Ministers should not refrain from calling on their peers to assist the Philippines on the CoC, and as said earlier, these can only be achieved if the Asean were to work in consensus.
The retreat should also be the occasion when Asean foreign affairs ministers come to grip with the realities of new global geopolitical repercussions, particularly with the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States.
It is undeniable that Trump’s policies will have an impact on the Asean a grouping that is already facing serious unity issues and is going through trying times.
But Trump should not be the dominant topic at this meeting, though it is a major concern that will influence the region for the next four years at the least.
The foreign ministers should focus on the fact that the authority of the union is still challenged by the division sowed by China among some Asean members over the disputed SCS.
They should call for the revival of unity among the grouping, and rally the nations to fight back against external or domestic events that could influence or threaten the peace and unity of the Asean.
The retreat should also put the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling on SCS back on the table of discussions because the ruling against China has strengthened Asean by giving it a serious weapon.
Asean nations will also have to decide whether the SCS conflict will continue to be a dividing wedge among them.
Will they allow China to dominate and to succeed in pushing forward its divisive agenda with its 9-dash line?
Asean should instead work together to force the international community to push back Beijing’s controversial and rather inexisting 9-dash line out of China’s seaborne policies.
And they can only do this through consensus among the Asean nations, by rejecting selfish designs and peer political-economic pressure from Beijing.
By Mohd Selamat, who is the head of the WarisanMelayuRiau non-government organisation