Hugh White says it is difficult to imagine Indonesia putting its relations with China at risk by supporting Vietnam over its claims in the South China Sea. This focuses attention firmly on an issue that used to be debated frequently but now seems to have been forgotten (or is it just that to do so is thought to risk causing offence?): how united is ASEAN and does it risk being little more than a talking shop?

To ask the question is not to suggest ASEAN in its collective identity is unimportant, nor to suggest that the problem that emerged at the recent Ministers' Meeting in Phnom Penh, when the members of ASEAN could not agree to issue a communiqué, is without significance. But what happened in Phnom Penh underlines the fact that ASEAN in its present form does not prevent substantial disagreements between its members.

Indeed, particularly with the membership of the three 'Indochinese' states, it seems more likely than not that there will be important issues where agreement will not be achieved. As I suggested in my post last week, Cambodia's readiness to hew to China's wishes in relation to the South China Sea was entirely predictable. And I see no reason to expect that Cambodia, while Hun Sen remains in power, will do other than act with concern to take the fullest account of Chinese interests.

A shortlist of some of ASEAN's problems includes:

  • The failure of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to find a solution to the haze problem that has caused difficulties for several years (see photo of Jakarta by Flickr user the juniorpartner.)
  • The continuing difficulties between Cambodia and Thailand in relation to the Preah Vihear temple
  • The prospect that Laos may build a dam on the mainstream of the Mekong River in direct disregard of the strongly voiced objections of Cambodia and Vietnam.

ASEAN membership has done nothing to eliminate these examples of conflicting interests.