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ASEAN Optimistic About Regional Security, Challenges Remain

ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, (File)

ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, (File)

Last week's Association of Southeast Asian Nations security conference produced an agreement on how to address South China Sea disputes and a breakthrough meeting between North and South Korea. The group's leaders say the progress demonstrates that a consensus-based approach to pursuing regional peace can be effective.

ASEAN leaders optimistic

There is a sense of optimism among ASEAN leaders following the regional security forum that concluded Saturday in Bali.

ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan says the foreign ministers from the 10 Southeast Asian nations, the United States, China, Russia and other countries in the region made constructive progress on a number of issues that threaten stability in Asia. He says ASEAN's inclusive regional forum and consensus-building approach yielded real progress toward resolving disputes in the South China Sea, on the Korean peninsula and between Thailand and Cambodia.

“I believe in mutually reinforcing experiences and atmosphere. I think if there is an achievement, recognize it. Ask for more. If there is a glimpse of success, give it support, give it encouragement and let it roll, let grow and let it evolve,” Surin said.

Surin recognize more needs to be done

But Surin recognizes that it will take more than just a successful conference to resolve any of the issues that ASEAN addressed.

Despite the informal sideline meetings between North and South Korea, there was no announcement that six-party talks to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program will resume. The United States says it still wants to see North Korea refrain from provocative military actions and take irreversible steps to end its nuclear weapons program before resuming talks.

ASEAN leaders were also encouraged when Thai and Cambodian foreign ministers said their countries will comply with the International Court of Justice’s order to immediately demilitarize a disputed border area and allow in ASEAN observers.

Terrority disputes

More than 20 people have died in fighting this year over territory around a 900-year-old Hindu-Khmer temple on the Cambodian side of the border. While both sides agreed to the ruling in principle, Thailand says withdrawing military forces will require time and negotiations. And Cambodia wants ASEAN observers deployed before it withdraws from the disputed area.

Surin points to the agreement on guidelines to develop a binding code of conduct to resolve disputes in the South China Sea as the most important achievement of the conference. But the guidelines do not directly deal with the conflicting territorial claims between China and several ASEAN members. Instead, they create a process for the countries involved to develop environmental conservation projects, tourism and fisheries. Surin says the process will start a dialogue that will lead to addressing the conflicting territorial claims.

“We hope that the application of the guidelines will give us momentum, will give us mutual confidence, will give us mutual trust and good experiences, positive. Not all are comfortable. Not all are in agreement but all are willing to give it a try,” Surin noted.

Surin says ASEAN's development into a regional community is an evolving process. Its consensus-based approach will not always prevent conflict, he admits, but it does provide a forum to Asian countries that want to resolve disputes peacefully.