A particularly important question is how to help ASEAN become more effective in addressing the emerging security challenges. The biggest worry now is that currently ASEAN cannot form a common stance on the issue of the East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea) dispute, mainly because of the principles of consensus of this association.
The consensus principle
Vietnam’s President Tran Dai Quang at the 38th Singapore Lecture forum, held by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, with the theme “Strengthening partnership for sustainable development of the region”.
Due to the great diversity of the ASEAN member countries, the association has considered the consensus principle as a fundamental principle of its activities. Officially put on the ASEAN Charter in Article 20, this rule helps to ensure the equality of sovereignty among member states and prevent any member country from being marginalized in the association’s important decisions.
Although the consensus principle helps ASEAN maintain unity and make the member states feel more comfortable participating in the association, sometimes it becomes a problem. For example, ASEAN was perplexed in issuing a response to the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 in the United States as well as the fight against terrorism led by the United States later, especially in the Middle East.
A larger number of members make it difficult for association to find a common voice. The increasing number of members also facilitates the intervention of external powers in the process of making decision, if the powers find out that this decision will be unfavorable for their national interests.
Security in the East Sea
At the 45th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) hosted by Cambodia in July 2012, ASEAN did not have a joint statement for the first time in its history.
At the 49th annual meeting held in July 2016, the ASEAN foreign ministers once again did not reach consensus on adding opinions on the historic ruling released by an international arbitration court on the lawsuit between the Philippines and China related to the East Sea into its joint statement.
If ASEAN keeps failing to deal with disagreements, the goal of “maintaining and enhancing peace” as its Charter stated will be suspected. More importantly, if ASEAN does not take action to solve a problem that is so important to peace and security in the region, some member states and partners may seek outside mediation to address this matter. If that happens, it will affect the unity and the central role of the Association.
Therefore, ASEAN needs to discuss ways to reshape itself in order better implement the principle of consensus to ensure that the interests of member states may be in harmony with the interests of the entire association, thereby helping maintain the central role of ASEAN in the regional security architecture. This pressing need has been highlighted in recent years.
Notably, at the 38th Singapore Lecture in late August 2016, President of Vietnam Tran Dai Quang also said that although consensus is a fundamental principle of ASEAN, ASEAN needs to establish additional mechanisms to allow a certain degree of flexibility in managing a number of emerging issues.
Towards a policy to make decisions based on majority votes
A solution for this is to apply the mechanism to make decisions based on a vote by majority instead of the consensus principle. This is not a new proposal for ASEAN. For example, in the 2006 report, the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) for advice on the ASEAN Charter said that as the scope of activities of ASEAN is expanding, ASEAN should consider alternative decision-making mechanisms which are more flexible, including the vote.
Also, besides the principle of “ASEAN minus X” in the economic field, there was also precedence for the mechanism of making decisions based on majority votes in the field of politics – security. For example, the Treaty on Southeast Asia without Nuclear Weapons 1995 stated that decisions made by a committee established under the Treaty will be made by consensus, or if consensus is not reached, then by a majority of two thirds of the presenting member states who vote.
Thus, we can say that the application of the mechanism of making decision based on majority vote in the fields of politics and security should not be regarded as an “impossible mission” for ASEAN. The matter is how to design a voting mechanism that is attractive enough and can be accepted by all ASEAN member states.
Firstly, a voting mechanism based on the “super-majority” or two-thirds should be regarded as a reasonable starting point to bring this idea into discussion. Accordingly, each member state will be entitled to one vote with equal value and any decision made must be backed by at least seven of the 10 member states. In that case the two-thirds majority is considered a too low threshold. ASEAN might consider a higher threshold, for example, three quarters. Accordingly, decisions are made if they are backed by at least 8 of the 10 member states.
Secondly, in case that ASEAN cannot reach consensus on a certain issue, there should be a clear distinction between the two types of problems. The first type are problems with a clear impact on the sovereignty, territorial integrity and domestic autonomy of any member state; and the second type are problems with a clear impact on the peace and security of the region.
The ASEAN member countries must seek consensus in the matters of the first category, unless the countries directly affected have different decisions. As for the problems of the second kind, ASEAN should apply the principle of making decisions based on majority vote. Accordingly, if an issue under consideration has no obvious impact to the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political autonomy of any member state but has an important impact on peace and security of the region, the member states should not be allowed to veto against the interests of the remaining nine members and detrimental to peace and security in the region.
Institutional reform: focus on the East Sea issue
Special conference of ASEAN – China Foreign Ministers at Yuxi City, Yunnan Province, China.
In the case that ASEAN cannot adopt a decision-making mechanism based on voting by majority, the member states may need to search for new institutional arrangements to overcome the impasse caused by the principle of consensus, through which they can address more effectively urgent security problems, especially East Sea disputes.
First of all, ASEAN should consider establishing an ASEAN Commission on the East Sea Dispute Management. This committee should be a permanent body including the four ASEAN countries directly involved in the disputes as well as other ASEAN member countries that are concerned with this issue.
The main purpose of this committee is to help coordinate ASEAN’s position on the East Sea issue and serve as a centralized point of contact to help coordinate ASEAN with China in dispute management. Accordingly, the commission should be assigned the task of making the joint ASEAN response to the incidents in the East Sea, and compile the contents on the East Sea dispute in joint statements as well as other appropriate documents of ASEAN.
If it is established, this committee will be an important institutional step forward for ASEAN to better manage the East Sea disputes.
Secondly, if the committee is not established, the ASEAN claimants of the East Sea might consider restoring its consultative groups for the East Sea issue. This mechanism used to help the countries of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam exchange views and set a common stance on the East Sea dispute before the ASEAN meetings.
If the consultation group is resumed, and especially if it is institutionalized and expanded to include the ASEAN countries that do not participate in the East Sea dispute, but are interested in this issue, it could play a suitable role, though less formal, to help ASEAN more efficiently resolve issues related to the East Sea disputes.
Finally, in case all of the above measures are not possible, the nations with the same sense of purpose in the region, whether involved in the East Sea dispute or being a member of ASEAN, should work together to establish a regional consultation group on the East Sea dispute. Operating outside the framework of ASEAN, this consultation group will help coordinate the members’ stance on the East Sea disputes, especially at regional forums like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) or the East Asia Summit (EAS).
In the long term, if it is possible, this consultation group could evolve into a regional security arrangement mechanism to support security mechanism led by ASEAN. Although such a consultation group may undermine the unity and ASEAN’s central role, perhaps that’s the only possible measure to help the countries concerned resolve the East Sea dispute in an effective way if ASEAN cannot overcome the impasse caused by the consensus principle.
In general, the principle of consensus so far has played a very important role for the success of ASEAN. However, as the regional context has changed rapidly, this principle makes ASEAN become less effective in addressing the urgent security issues, including the East Sea disputes.
The above initiatives can help ASEAN overcome this limitation. However, ASEAN still has huge benefits in maintaining the principle of consensus in important issues, and especially if the East Sea dispute is no longer a dangerous threat to peace in the region.
To achieve this purpose, there should be activities to strengthen confidence-building, cooperation, and dialogue among the member countries of ASEAN, and between ASEAN and China. All ASEAN members should strive to achieve a balance between national interests and the greater common interests of the whole region.
Meanwhile, some powers outside ASEAN should be more sensitive to the security concerns of ASEAN members, and should act appropriately to turn the East Sea into an area of peace and prosperity rather than an arena of tension and confrontation.
Dr. Le Hong Hiep
Dr. Le Hong Hiep is the principal researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute), Singapore. The author would like to thank Hoang Thi Ha, Tang Siew Mun and Termsak Chalermpalanupap for their ideas, comments and suggestions which have been very useful for this article.