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Thai-Cambodian dispute has implications for AEC

The Thai-Cambodian dispute poses a significant challenge to the
prospect of achieving the Asean Economic Community in 2015. The meeting
of Asean foreign ministers today in Indonesia is therefore critical for
the success of the AEC project.
A ‘‘tuk tuk’’ rides past the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh on Sunday.
Thailand has asked the United Nations to postpone the World Heritage
listing process of the Preah Vihear Temple on its common border with
Cambodia, until a territorial dispute is settled under Asean auspices.
The Cambodian initiative to take the conflict with Thailand to the
United Nations Security Council reflects Cambodia’s strategy as well as
the limits of its endurance. Like it or not, Cambodia had the right to
turn to the UN. The Cambodian government apparently felt that the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations was failing Phnom Penh and hoped
that Asean would take stronger action after the Security Council’s
By contrast, Thai policy leaders believed that the UNSC would
exercise considerable restraint in adopting a resolution on the
conflict and transfer the matter back to Asean. Thailand would then
benefit from Asean’s ambiguous practice of non-interference, which is
underpinned by the so-called “Asean way”. Thus, the Thai government
would still be able to follow its preferred approach and deal with the
conflict at the bilateral level.
The Security Council meeting on Feb 14 has left the Thai-Cambodian
conflict in the hands of Asean and its members. The episode thus
illustrates two critical problems Asean is confronting.
First, the Thai-Cambodian affair at the UNSC demonstrates the
efforts of both countries to bypass Asean. It can prove either an
obstacle or an opportunity for Asean, exposing as it does a
long-standing problem of the association: its weak and largely informal
Second, the UNSC decision puts to a serious test the willingness of
Asean’s members to place Asean common interests above narrow national
ones. In the context of pursuing the AEC, the tension between common
and national interests becomes a far more pressing issue than it had
been in the past. Only strong commitment to Asean interests will allow
the member states to overcome the limitations of nation-state
Weak institutionalisation and the principle of non-interference were
originally instruments to assure the five founding Asean members of
full sovereign rights over their internal affairs. In the years
following 1967, this rationale proved fairly useful for fashioning an
anti-Communist bloc in Southeast Asia from a group of insufficiently
democratic states.
With the departure of the Cold War from the region in the 1990s,
Asean’s evolution proceeded in tandem with the demands of globalisation
and global actors. As a result, Asean adopted a charter setting the
goal of an Asean Economic Community to be achieved by 2015.
For many people, however, Asean’s integration process appears to be
stagnating. This is due partly to the fact that they overlooked the
dialectic relationship between the principle of non-interference and
the “Asean way”, on the one hand, and the prospect of the 2015 AEC on
the other.
The principle of non-interference does not only regard political and
military affairs, but also has a significant impact on economic,
cultural, educational and environmental cooperation. Therefore,
deepening economic integration can be seen as Asean’s endeavour to
overcome the “Asean way” and the principle of non-interference in the
economic realm.
Furthermore, as is illustrated by the European example, advances in
economic integration will later spill over to other areas such as
culture, education, environment and social policies.
In Southeast Asia, the dynamics of the integration process will be
complicated by democratic deficits and the stark disparities in
economic development within and between the member states, which are
even larger than in the European Union.
At the same time, advances in economic integration and its spillover
effects hold out the promise of a fairer distribution of wealth, of
better social protection and opportunities, of democratisation, of a
higher standard of human rights protection, and last but not least, of
peaceful and constructive border management.
Asean can only realise these goals in the foreseeable future if the
Asean meeting today agrees on a stronger commitment to the “Asean
common interest” as the new norm guiding the policies of member states.
Whether or not Asean and the two parties to the conflict will allow
Asean’s common interest to win over national interests and domestic
politics is an open question. The escalation in Thai-Cambodian tensions
exemplifies two major impediments to deepening regional economic
integration: the culture of nationalism and border problems. Both of
them can be exploited for whipping nationalist sentiment, in particular
during periods of domestic political instability.
Moving beyond nationalism is never easy. More often than not,
nationalistic rhetoric and rituals serve as a cover for the political
interests of particular groups. Nor is Southeast Asia an exception to
this rule. The regimes in the region have long employed nationalism to
mask democratic deficits and economic inequalities by appeals for
national unity.
The prospect of an Asean Economic Community challenges not only the
Thai and Cambodian governments, but also the other policy leaders of
Asean, to consciously let grow the community as they have committed to
do so in signing the Asean Charter. In this light, the Cambodian
request for Asean mediation in solving the border conflict with
Thailand can be seen as affirming the common goals of Asean. Cambodia’s
experience with international mediation no doubt contributes to its
mature appearance on the international stage. Moreover, as a smaller
and less developed country than Thailand, Cambodia is likely to be more
open to identify itself with international institutions and regional
integration. Thailand, however, cannot afford to snub Asean. Recent
developments within the country, together with the current global
economic crisis and the waves of international discontent in the Middle
East, indicate a strong demand for social, economic and political
changes that can no longer be achieved at the national level alone.
The development of the AEC and its likely impact on political,
social and cultural conditions in the region are therefore crucial for
Thailand’s future. Against this backdrop, the current conflict presents
an opportunity to pioneer a new approach to relations and policy-making
in the region, which will promote “Asean common interests” and, at the
same time, benefit all member states.
As demonstrated by the European experience, regional integration
cannot be completed in one stage. Rather, it evolves over a span of
time. Jacques Delors, a former president of the European Commission,
once characterised the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe as an
“acceleration of history” which pushed European integration ahead.
Whether or not Thai-Cambodian relations can be an “acceleration of
history” for Asean’s integration lies in the hands of the meeting in
Indonesia today.Bypassing Asean once again will not be the right
approach. The history of the future is waiting to be made.
Bangkok Post
Categories: Local News
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