JIM MIDDLETON, PRESENTER: The Association of South East Nations or ASEAN, has won international prestige with its East Asia summit. Now the forum for global heavy weights to discuss strategic and economic tension.
Barack Obama and Xi Jinping will attend this year's gathering in Brunei in October.
But for all its political star appeal, the annual summit has made little headway on the conflict over the South China Sea. A regional dispute perhaps but with global ramifications.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is the director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and he's an expert on ASEAN.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak good to be talking to you.
THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK, SECURITY AND INT’L STUDIES, CHULALONGKORN UNI: Good to be here.
JIM MIDDLETON: You say that one of ASEAN's major challenges is the growing dichotomy between its maritime and main land members, does that mean that the South China Sea dispute is a make or break issue for the organisation do you think?
THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: Not a make or break issue as such but it is a growing challenge. If you look at the news and follow the issues in the last several years, the South China Sea is now an arena for rivalry and conflict between...
JIM MIDDLETON: Big power rivalry and conflict too?
THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: Big power rivalry between the US and China and also with Japan and other countries. But also conflict between China and certain ASEAN members, namely the Philippines and Vietnam in particular. But also in Malaysia and Indonesia and even Singapore and Brunei are all apprehensive about China's growing dominance of the South China Sea.
JIM MIDDLETON: Given that the authority that has now been invested in ASEAN through the East Asia summit and other gatherings, the fact that the big powers, the US, China, India and Russia, have now invested time and effort into the organisation, it does mean that it has to change, if it is going to live up to the expectations that these countries have placed upon it.
THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: There is a lot of hope and expectations of the East Asia summit, the EAS but in fact it is really more or less a strategic dialogue at this time. It has not been a platform to hammer out difficult issues, to cooperate, collaborate, coordinate, but it is a platform to discuss among the major players in the region. So it has to make a leap, it has to become more institutionalised and it has to go beyond just having meetings and talk-shops.
JIM MIDDLETON: On that question of a leap, as you put it, former ASEAN Secretary General, Mr Surin Pitsuwan, told me at the end of the East Asia summit in Cambodia last year as he was about to retire, that he thought ASEAN might have to give up one of its foundation principles, that is of non-intervention in each others' affairs if it was to live up to the expectations that have been created for it, if it was to become a genuine clearing house rather than just a talkfest.
THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: This is a dilemma for ASEAN. It has worked because it has this non-interference and the principle that members do not interfere or medal in each others' affairs.
JIM MIDDLETON: That is all right as long as they are talking about each others' affairs but now we are talking about issues of global, not just regional importance?
THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: Yes. This is part and parcel of what ASEAN calls the ASEAN centrality. You have ASEAN in the driver's seat in regional institutionalism but now ASEAN has reached a point where it has to become more cohesive and assertive. The non-interference principle is changing but not fast enough. ASEAN members now discuss about each others' affairs up to a point, about Myanmar for example, about the haze across Indonesia and Malaysia and Singapore, about the Thai Cambodian border conflict but they're not discussing it in a way that would resolve and mitigate the conflicts and hot spots. They need to go a little bit beyond, much further and if they can do that ASEAN would have more credibility to drive these other regional institutions.
JIM MIDDLETON: Last year Cambodia, a client of China, clearly was ASEAN chair and did Beijing's bidding by trying to keep the South China Sea off the agenda as much as possible. This year it is Brunei as chair which is a claim on state as far as the South China Sea is concerned. That must make it harder to achieve genuine progress as the forthcoming summits later on this year?
THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: In the immediate term, some of the pressure has been released, the Chinese have become more flexible. We can see the last meeting last month that they have become more pragmatic. They're not ruling out the code of conduct but they are willing to work it out but ASEAN also has to work it out with them. This year is a critical year because they need to make some progress on the code of conduct for the South China Sea and China has said very clearly that it will not support ASEAN to unite against China which means ASEAN has to get its act to do with what to do with China and one way is to ever the Philippines and Vietnam back off a bit and have Indonesia and Thailand work it out with the Chinese so that the emphasis can be on the COC.
JIM MIDDLETON: We’d better leave it there, Thitinan Pongsudhirak thank you very much indeed.
THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: My pleasure, thank you.