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European Journal of

East Asian Studies 13 (2014) 3349

European Journal
of
East Asian Studies
brill.com/ejea

The Tragedy of the Southeast Asian Commons


Ritualism in aseans Response to the
South China Sea Maritime Dispute*
John Harvey Divino Gamas
International Studies Department
Ateneo de Davao University
jhdgamas@addu.edu.ph

Abstract
The South China Sea disputes have proven to be the most divisive issue in asean.
The collective decision-making of the ten member states towards the issue remains
ineffective and this has often been attributed to their disunity. However, disunity
in the asean maritime commons is symptomatic of the underlying political culture
in Southeast Asia. Using Lucian Pyes analysis of power as ritual in Southeast Asian
political culture, we can surmise that the disjuncture between the hopes for a definitive
Code of Conduct and the resulting lack of consensus in the 2012 biannual asean
summit chaired by Cambodia concretised ritualism. This papers analysis focuses on
how intra-asean disagreement in resolving the South China Sea maritime dispute was
compounded by Cambodias 2012 asean chairmanship. It revealed that power as ritual
reduces asean integration into a temple in support of the secularised version of the
cosmic order and thus tolerating its lack of pragmatic utility and efficiency.

Keywords
asean summit power as ritual Code of Conduct South China Sea

* An earlier version of this paper was presented at the third International Conference on International Relations and Development (icird), Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand,
22 November 2013. I am grateful to the commentator and participants of the conference for
their insightful comments. I am also very grateful to the Ateneo de Davao University, School
of Arts and Sciences, for the moral and financial support provided. Finally, I wish to thank
my professors from the De La Salle University, ma International StudiesEuropean Studies
programme, for their guidance.

koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2014 | doi: 10.1163/15700615-01301004

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Introduction
The tragedy of the commons, an environmental analogy popularised by Garrett Hardin,1 narrates the destruction of common pastureland by herders who
were only after their own economic aggrandisement. This analogy also resonates in the current geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea. aseans
failure in the 2012 summits in Cambodia to provide a cohesive platform among
its members and produce a binding Code of Conduct, in the face of Chinas
sweeping maritime claims, is Southeast Asias greatest tragedy in recent history. Although not all asean member states have territorial claims in the South
China Sea, it is undeniably their common sea lane of communication.2 Indeed,
Singapores Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew understood quite well the shared relevance of the Southeast Asian maritime commons when he opined that Chinas
claim posted a challenge to the regions security as a whole.3 Chinas draconian
entrance erases the commons with its exclusive claim, thus snatching the treasure from the divided asean dwarfs. It is commonly held that this disagreement
among member states is a result of their failure to transcend parochial interest.
While the four claimant asean states, especially the Philippines and Vietnam,
are assertive, the others are playing safe or, worse, acting as a broker on behalf
of Chinese territorial interests. However, I argue that disunity is not the main
reason why asean remains ineffective in facing Chinas claims.
Disunity in aseans collective territorial concern is symptomatic of the underlying political culture in Southeast Asia. Using Lucian Pyes4 study of Asian
political culture as an analytical framework, we can uncover another dimension of the dynamics within aseans high-level interactions. The apparent helplessness of the asean regional platform in effectively addressing disputes in the
South China Sea is attributable to the way in which power is culturally conceived and practised. Power in Asia is traditionally viewed as ritual.5 asean
decision-making in uncontroversial matters is easily addressed with consensus
agreements, while highly sensitive issues are left unaddressed through rhetoric-

1 Garrett Hardin, The tragedy of the commons, Science, Vol. 162 (December 1968), p. 1245.
2 Zhongchun Wang, and Yaqiang Li, Chinaasean maritime security cooperation situation
and proposals, in Saw Swee-Hock, Sheng Lijun and Chin Kin Wan (eds), aseanChina Relations, Realities and Prospects (Singapore: iseas, 2005), p. 188.
3 Jose T. Almonte, Toward One Southeast Asia (Quezon City, Philippines: Institute for Strategic
and Development Studies, 2004), p. 197.
4 Lucian Pye, Asian Power and Politics: The Cultural Dimensions of Authority (London: Belknap,
1985).
5 Pye, Asian Power and Politics, p. 39.

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coated ritualism. Since territorial questions are contentious, asean states often
fail to decisively exert a unified counterweight in the scramble for maritime territory. The disjuncture between the hopes for a definitive Code of Conduct and
the resulting lack of consensus in the 2012 biannual asean summit, chaired by
Cambodia, concretised ritualism.
This papers analysis focuses on how intra-asean disagreement in resolving
the South China Sea maritime dispute was compounded by Cambodias 2012
asean chairmanship. It reveals that power as ritual reduces asean integration
into a temple in support of the secularised version of the cosmic order and thus
tolerating its lack of pragmatic utility and efficiency.

Intra-asean Rift and Cambodian Brokering


Cambodias asean chairmanship and hosting of the 20th and 21st summits were
controversially divisive. Despite Cambodias notable achievement in mustering
an outcome declaration in the realm of human rights in the region, the South
China Sea dispute has haunted it and thus has taken its toll on Southeast
Asian integration. Cambodias handling of the maritime disputes in the South
China Sea has tainted not only its own reputation but also that of asean as a
whole. Even though member states talk explicitly of unity, the organisation has
recurrently manifested internal disagreements in pursuing a Code of Conduct
or compromising on a Declaration on Conduct.
Since 1995, when China built what were allegedly fishermens shelters on
Mischief Reef, the Philippines together with Vietnam has been at the forefront
of championing the creation of a Code of Conduct (coc) in the South China
Sea to supersede their separate bilateral codes of conduct with the prc.6 Yet the
proposal for a coc has never been a rallying point among asean member states.
Liselotte Odgaard7 pointed out that the South China Sea is a perennial source of
intra-asean disunity because of the divergent foreign policy positions of member states. Though the Philippines and Vietnam actively promote the coc they
also doubt the capacity of asean to produce effective collaboration with China.
Indonesia wants to maintain guarded but friendly relations with both China
and the United States via extensive cooperation. Malaysias criticism of us economic and political interference in the region is balanced by its preference for a
6 Liselotte Odgaard, The South China Sea: aseans security concerns about China, in Shaun
Breslin and Richard Higgot (eds), International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, Vol. ii (Los Angeles: Sage, 2003), p. 326.
7 Odgaard, The South China Sea, pp. 328329.

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continued American presence while apparently advancing appeasement policies towards China. Singapore and Thailand believe that peace and stability is
possible under continued strategic American military balancing. Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar generally avoid espousing independent positions on
the issue. Ogaard dubbed them followers.8 Now, the question is: what or who
is it that they are following? These followers may pursue the asean consensus
so as to play safe or protect their own terriorial interests. They may also follow the interests of their patron state. Since Brunei is small and has its own
territorial claim in the South China Sea, its pursuit of the asean consensus
is mainly to ensure its interest by finding protection in numbers. Given the
huge amount of Chinese investments in Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia,9 as
well as the fact that they dont have any direct stake in the sea dispute, one
would surmise that these states are vulnerable to a patronclient relationship
with China. As this paper will later illustrate, Cambodia has succumbed to this
relationship. Being a client state doesnt deny Cambodias agency. It actually
confirms agency, as Cambodia chooses to align itself to whoever best serves its
foreign policy.
Underlying the divergent foreign policy positions of asean states is the
mantra of regional peace and stability. In pursuit of this mantra asean and the
Peoples Republic of China agreed in 2002 to what has been seen as an initial
step or a compromise alternative to the coc, the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (doc). Nevertheless, the docs implementing guidelines, despite being non-binding, were adopted in July 2011 after a protracted
search for consensus.10 However, the mounting aggressive maritime presence
and rhetoric of China has intensified the desire among asean claimant states to

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Odgaard, The South China Sea, p. 329.


News reports from recent years attest that China is the number one source of FDIs
in Laos and Myanmar. See Simon Creak, Chinathe largest foreign investor in Laos,
New Mandala, 20 July 2010, available at: http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2010/
07/20/china-the-largest-foreign-investor-in-laos/; and Mizzima News, China now no. 1
investor in Burma, Mizzima, 18 January 2012, available at: http://www.mizzima.com/
business/6436-china-now-no-1-investor-in-burma.html. The Cambodian government also confirmed this; see Council for the Development of Cambodia. Investment trends,
Council for the Development of Cambodia, cdc, Cambodian Investment Board, cib and
Cambodian Special Economic Zone Board (2013), available at: http://www.cambodia
investment.gov.kh/investment-enviroment/investment-trend.html.
Xinhuanet, China, asean nations agree on guidelines for implementation of doc in South
China Sea, Xinhua, English.news.cn (20 July 2011), available at: http://news.xinhuanet
.com/english2010/china/2011-07/20/c_13997623.htm.

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push for the coc. Numerous incidents from 2008 onwards involving the Philippines and Vietnam, on the one hand, and China, on the other, had escalated
the tensions in the region. In this context, the Philippines in early 2012 forwarded its draft Code of Conduct to fellow asean states.11 Before the summit,
Chinese President Hu Jintao made a high-profile visit to Cambodia, where he
made clear to Prime Minister Hun Sen that Beijing opposed holding talks on
a binding Code of Conduct too quickly.12 But contrary to this initial position,
China now sought a voice in aseans discussions of the coc. This led to the first
signs of asean unravelling as Cambodia, the timely chair for Chinese interests,
willingly acted on its behalf.
Cambodias chairmanship behaviour with regard to the maritime issue could
be perceived as that of a broker, protecting Chinas maritime interests,13 in a
classic example of patronclient reciprocity. From 34 April 2012 at the 20th
asean summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia started to insist on Chinas intention to become part of subsequent asean discussions regarding the coc. As
expected, the Philippines and Vietnam vigorously opposed this. Still, a compromise was achieved by allowing asean to continue with its deliberations
on the coc but at the same time communicating developments with China
through Cambodia, being the chair.14 Consequently after the Senior Officials
Meeting (som) the draft of the coc was submitted to the asean foreign ministers for deliberation, in time for the July asean Ministerial Meeting (amm). This
submitted draft was the heavily pruned15 version of the Philippine draft. An
official from the Cambodian foreign ministry delightedly told the media that
the asean foreign ministers had approved the cocs so-called key elements.
But he also highlighted that asean senior officials, from now on, would assess

11

12
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15

Carlyle A. Thayer, aseans Code of Conduct in the South China Sea: a litmus test for
community-building, Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 10 (2012), available at: http://www
.japanfocus.org/-Carlyle_A-Thayer/3813 (accessed 7 May 2013).
Thayer, aseans Code of Conduct.
It is yet unclear whether the prc regards this maritime claim as a core interest. Declaring it
as such would put it on a par with Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang. What is clear is that despite
the lack of any explicit official statement placing the South China Sea as a core interest,
there are already senior officials claiming it to be so. See Edward Wong, China hedges as
to whether South China Sea is a core interest worth war, New York Times (30 March 2011),
available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/31/world/asia/31beijing.html?_r=0.
Irwin Loy, asean still searching for consensus on South China Sea dispute, Voice of America (3 April 2012), available at: http://www.voanews.com/content/asean-still-searching-for
-consensus-on-south-china-sea-dispute-146073075/181128.html.
Thayer, aseans Code of Conduct.

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it together with their Chinese counterparts.16 Thanks to Cambodia, China had


found an entry point into the deliberations of the coc.
It was in the 45th amm, in the aftermath of the Scarborough Shoal standoff
between the Philippines and China, that the intra-asean rift became more evident. For the first time in asean history the amm failed to issue a joint communiqu. Despite the broad range of issues discussed in this 813 July meeting, the
item on the South China Sea proved to be a potent stumbling block. Cambodia
blamed the Philippines and Vietnam for the lack of consensus as they insisted
that the final communiqu include reference to the Scarborough Shoal and the
eez.17 This resulted in strained relations between the Philippines and Vietnam
on the one hand and Cambodia on the other, even amounting to Cambodias
recall of its ambassador to the Philippines over the ambassadors statements
against Vietnam and the Philippines.18 But Carlyle Thayers analysis of leaked
transcripts of the ministerial meeting revealed how Cambodian foreign minister Hor Namhong himself resisted any draft document which included the
Scarborough Shoal.19 Thayer noticed how the other nine foreign ministers were
bent upon arriving at a consensus. Notwithstanding the numerous attempts
to compromise, Cambodias foreign minister obstinately refused to accept any
draft which mentioned the shoal. Hor Namhong kept on insisting that it was
not an asean issue but a bilateral concern.20 Clearly Cambodia was defending
and parroting the Chinese position. China, guided by an emphasis on territorial
sovereignty, has consistently sought a bilateral rather than a multilateral solution to the maritime disputes. China is well aware that, from its current position
of increasing economic and military strength, this would be the best means of
protecting its interests.
The asean summit of 1820 November 2012 was the poignant conclusion
to this lack of regional solidarity and Cambodian machinations. Reports on
16

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20

Michael Lipin, Cambodia says asean ministers agree to key elements of sea code, Voice
of America (9 July 2012), available at: http://www.voacambodia.com/content/cambodia
-says-asean-ministers-agree-to-key-elements-of-sea-code-161930995/1405463.html.
Paterno Esmaquel ii, Word war between ph, Cambodia over asean, Rappler Beta (31 July
2012), available at: http://www.rappler.com/nation/9550-ph,-cambodia-trade-barbs-over
-asean. See also Michelle Fitzpatrick, asean summit breaks up in acrimony, Jakarta Globe
(13 July 2012), available at: http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/home/asean-summit-breaks
-up-in-acrimony/530300.
Agence France-Presse, Cambodian envoy to ph recalled amid China row, abs-cbn
news.com (8 October 2012), available at: http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/nation/08/10/12/
cambodian-envoy-ph-recalled-amid-china-row.
Thayer, aseans Code of Conduct.
Thayer, aseans Code of Conduct.

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the 21st asean summit revolved around how Philippine President Benigno
Aquino iii interrupted the concluding remarks being delivered by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. When Prime Minister Hun Sen pronounced that
asean had reached a consensus on the South China Sea issue within an asean
China framework, President Aquino raised his hand and stated,
There were several views expressed yesterday on asean unity which we
did not realize would be translated into an asean consensus. For the
record, this was not our understanding. The asean route is not the only
route for us. As a sovereign state, it is our right to defend our national
interests.21
Out of procedural courtesy to a fellow head of government, Hun Sen saved face
by acknowledging the comments and assured him that they would be recorded
in the procedures of the meeting. Some news reports described this as a rebuke
by the Philippine president to the asean chair.22 President Aquinos suspicion
of the nuances entailed by the chairs statement has been confirmed by two
other incidents. At the start of the summit a Cambodian foreign ministry official, Kao Kim Hourn, confidently asserted that asean leaders had decided that
they will not internationalise the South China Sea from now on.23 Gulfnews24
also reported that during the aseanJapan summit, Hun Sen reiterated the
fiction that asean had agreed not to internationalise the issue by letting the
claimants handle disputes bilaterally with China.
Thus Cambodias asean chairmanship has revealed, for the whole world to
see, the internal cracks of Southeast Asian integration. A tidal wave born out of
the tensions in the South China Sea has washed away all illusions of an asean
unified fortress. Nevertheless, the existence of asean is tolerated and members
continue to hope in it despite its helplessness in the face of Chinas aggressive

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Barbara Mae Dacanay, Aquino rebukes Hun Sen, Gulfnews.com (20 November 2012), available at: http://gulfnews.com/news/world/philippines/aquino-rebukes-hun-sen-1.110768.
Jason Szep, Manuel Mogato and Martin Abbugao, Aquino rebukes Hun Sen as China
drives a wedge in asean, Interaksyon (19 November 2012), available at: http://www
.interaksyon.com/article/48397/aquino-rebukes-hun-sen-as-china-drives-a-wedge-in
-asean.
Szep et al., Aquino rebukes Hun Sen as China drives a wedge in asean. See also D.J. Yap,
No asean unity in sea row with China, Philippine Daily Inquirer (20 November 2012),
available at: http://globalnation.inquirer.net/56974/philippines-says-no-asean-unity-over
-china-row.
Barbara Mae Dacanay, Aquino rebukes Hun Sen.

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unilateral behaviour. Indeed, there are multiple reasons why asean must exist
despite its inability to address this long-standing maritime issue. However, this
maritime issue is a fundamental indicator of asean unity and utility. In fact,
aseans practical helplessness is tolerated as long as it assures its members of
its ritual efficacy.

Power as Ritual in asean


First, Pyes framework should be situated under the broad umbrella of interpretivist understandings of international relations, specifically constructivism.
Amitav Acharya and Richard Stubbs have already recognised the contributions of constructivists in our understanding of Southeast Asian regional relations.25 This is because constructivism allows room for cultural interpretations
as it views international structure in terms of a social structure infused with
ideational factors to include norms, rules and law.26 This intersubjective structure influences agents identity and interests, and the outcomes of international
affairs. Constructivism tells us that political culture stems from ideas and is
passed down through the process of socialisation. For Pye, socialisation occurs
first within the domestic setting and then within the broader community as
well.27
Lucian Pye argued that Asian cultures generally regard power as a form of
ritual.28 Ritual acts are not necessarily purposive in a way which effectively
addresses issues. They are normative procedures or rites meant to satisfy the
spiritual rather than the material. The accurate performance of such rituals
results in the highest type of power.29 Hence, those who perform such rituals
are presumed to be the most powerful and righteous individuals in a community or polity. Robert MacIver articulates a similar idea when he describes the
role of ceremony in maintaining the apartness and sanctity of the one hold-

25

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27
28
29

First, they have broadened our understanding of the sources and determinants of regional
order by recognizing the role of ideational forces, such as culture, norms and identity,
as opposed to offering a purely materialistic perspective: Amitav Acharya and Richard
Stubbs, Theorizing Southeast Asian relations: an introduction, The Pacific Review, Vol. 19,
No. 2 (June 2006), p. 132.
Paul R. Viotti and Mark V. Kauppi, International Relations Theory, fourth edition (New
York: Pearson Education Incorporated, 2010), p. 277.
Pye, Asian Power and Politics.
Pye, Asian Power and Politics, p. 39.
Pye, Asian Power and Politics, p. 39.

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ing authority.30 Ceremony or ritual conveys the enduring worth of an authority


figure and at the same time warns ordinary people to preserve a respectful distance. The more ceremonious it is, the more it inculcates the majesty of God.31
This also connotes that ritual politics is theatre. It recalls Clifford Geertzs theatre state describing the nineteenth-century Balinese style of ruling, where
loyalty was encouraged through the awe inspired by the public dramatisation
of elite status.32
Aside from demarcating the sacred and the profane, Pye goes on to suggest
that ritual as power connotes that infinite external powers lie beyond the
behest of any individual and that rituals only marginally influence them.33
Because forces are beyond individuals, Asian cultures tend to decouple power
with accountability. Power that is generated by the performance of correct
rituals lacks any precision of purpose.34 Authority figures performing the ritual
can only be held responsible for the general state of affairs consequent to
the ceremony. This is possible since the supernatural world could provide an
avenue for justifying, blaming and explaining occurrences.35 Ritualised power
does not set policy agendas, nor does it deny emerging issues; it merely imparts
a blessing from the authorities that might somehow change the fortunes of
their people.
Among Southeast Asian cultures, ritualised power is related to a cosmic
order governed by powerful external supernatural forces. Pye observes that: In
Southeast Asia the Hinduized states were ruled by god-kings whose elaborate
rituals, carried out with sacred paraphernalia, presumably ensured that their
structure of government matched at all points the design of the forces that
ruled the cosmos.36
Under the rule of a god-king (Devaraja) power had a sacred quality, hence
must not be reduced to mere mundane utilitarian purposes. Those who rule
were expected to drive away evil spirits and invite good fortune. Everybody
else had to support the ritual following an individuals heaven-ordained role.

30
31
32
33
34
35
36

Robert MacIver. The myth of authority, in Roy C. Macridis and Bernard E. Brown (eds),
Comparative Politics, Notes and Readings, third edition (Illinois: Dorsey, 1968), p. 124.
MacIver, The myth of authority, p. 125.
Clifford Geertz, Negara: The Theater State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1980).
Pye, Asian Power and Politics, p. 39.
Pye, Asian Power and Politics, p. 40.
Pye, Asian Power and Politics, p. 45.
Pye, Asian Power and Politics, p. 39.

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Therefore government activities were directed to achieving harmony with the


supernatural.37
In using Pyes articulations on Asian political culture as our analytical framework, it is important to stress the following. For one, it precludes the idea that
contemporary Southeast Asian states are still totally and deterministically governed by such traditional views on ritualism. Recognising a common politicocultural heritage also does not entail that ritualism is uniform across all Asian
communities and nations. Western concepts of politics and governance had
already made a mark in the regions culture in colonial times. While sceptics
have expressed doubt on the existence of a common Southeast Asian political
culture, there is still reason to believe that traditional politico-cultural frameworks and pre-capitalist commerce have a role in contemporary regional interactions. In citing Wolters mandala system38 and Reids age of commerce,39
Amitav Acharya recognised that the dynamism of an interdependent regional
political and economic heritage spawned a regional cultural pattern.40 He
also recognised that, despite the apparent compartmentalisation of Southeast
Asia during the colonial period, Westernisation actually increased the regions
degree of similarity.41 Thus contemporary Southeast Asia has retained indigenous ideas as well as assimilating Western ones. This relates well with Lucian
Pyes description of Southeast Asias image of authority as being bifurcated,

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Pye, Asian Power and Politics, p. 45.


Before the advent of the Westphalian system in Southeast Asia, there existed the mandala
system. Wolters illustrated the mandala, or circle of kings, as having a king, regarded
with divine and universal sovereignty, asserting personal hegemony over other rulers,
who were his compliant allies and vassals. See Oliver W. Wolters, History, Culture and
Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives, revised edition (New York: Southeast Asia Program
Publications, 1999), pp. 2728.
Anthony Reid emphasises the high-level trading links connecting major port cities of
Southeast Asia. With this, Reid posits how European colonisation disrupted regional
cohesion. See Anthony Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 14501680, Volume i:
The Lands Below the Winds (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), p. 7.
Amitav Acharya, Imagined proximities: the making and unmasking of Southeast Asia as
a region, Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, Vol. 27 (1999), pp. 5862.
While responses of the various colonial units to Westernisation differed, the clash between
Western political, cultural and economic pressures and indigenous traditions, as Benda
points out, very likely resulted in more or less similar structural changes; J. Benda, The
Treason of the Intellectuals (New York: Norton, 1969), p. 35. The result was an increased
degree of similarity in social and political structures throughout colonial Southeast Asia;
Benda, The Treason of the Intellectuals, p. 62.

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meaning that it is modelled after both Western conceptions of power and


authority and traditional cultures vitalised by religious beliefs.42
One may argue, therefore, that in certain circumstances, especially when a
problem is sensitive with doubtful solutions, there is a propensity to operate
under the guidance of traditional political culture, although in a secularised
fashion. Goldstein and Keohane argued that under conditions of uncertainty,
expectations depend on causal beliefs as well as on institutional arrangements
for authoritative decision making.43 Causal ideas serve as road maps which
provide agents with strategies of action. The conception of power as ritual has
its own logic of causality and prescribed mode of action to achieve objectives.
Under the uncertainty of the South China Sea maritime dispute, asean political
elites resorted to the assurance of ritual politics.
asean Temple of Cosmic Order
Along the lines delineated by Pye in describing Asian political culture, asean
could be understood as a platform in support of a secularised version of the
cosmic order. Like ancient Southeast Asian Indianised temples, which were
built in imitation of the cosmological order,44 asean was also formed to imitate at a regional level the ideal global Westphalian order and appease the
wrath of the gods of the bipolar Cold War system. asean was designed along
a non-negotiable Westphalian interpretation of sovereignty as spelled out in
the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs. This was to ensure that it
matched with the design of the forces that ruled the cosmos.45 At the time of
aseans foundation in 1967 the ruling Cold War superpowers, the United States
and the Soviet Union, were entering into detente. Despite the popular view that
asean was a creature of the West, the founding fathers articulated the Bangkok
Declaration in such a way as not to alienate or favour one superpower over the

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45

Pye, Asian Power and Politics, p. 91.


Judith Goldstein and Robert O. Keohane, Ideas and foreign policy: an analytical framework, in Judith Goldstein and Robert O. Keohane (eds), Ideas and Foreign Policy: Beliefs,
Institutions, and Political Change (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 13.
Ancient HinduBuddhist temples of Southeast Asia were patterned after religious conceptions of the universe. For instance in Indonesia, the Borobudurs blueprint was that of
the Buddhist mandala. See S. Kuhnt-Saptodewo, Indonesia, in Gabrielle Fahr Becker (ed.),
The Art of East Asia (Italy: Konemann Verlagsgesellchaft, 1999), pp. 308309. Cambodias
Angkor Wat imitates the Hindu Olympus, Mount Meru, and the surrounding world mountains bordered by the cosmic ocean. See Sumet Jumsai, Naga, Cultural Origins in Siam and
the West Pacific (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 2122.
Pye, Asian Power and Politics, p. 39.

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other. The nascent regional movement was presupposed upon the principle of
coexistence. Point 2 of the declaration states:
To promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law in the relationship among countries of the region
and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter.46
This entailed the attainment and maintenance of a peaceful status quo which
is essentially at the heart of United Nations cosmic order. asean founding
and subsequent members have recognised the necessity of regional and global
coexistence in the attainment of peace, stability and prosperity. Distancing
itself from the antagonism of the non-aligned movement against the superpowers, asean aims at a friendlier stance, evident in its 1971 Zone of Peace, Freedom
and Neutrality agreement.47 This has been an enduring asean commitment
as it fits well with the traditional conception of harmonising governance with
cosmic design so as to guarantee good fortune. asean therefore is an edifice
that symbolises the conceptions of order aiming to please the gods of the international system. With the new configuration brought about by the end of the
Cold War, asean is faced with uncertainty in figuring out the new gods and the
proper rituals to please them.
Looking at the present foreign policy positions of asean member states we
can deduced the following gods or relevant powerful actors that asean states
think matter in the post-Cold War order. By virtue of proximity, rapid economic
growth and territorial assertions China is seen as a rising regional hegemon
and even a global actor whose behaviour can either make or break asean. The
United States remains a major actor whose economic and military prowess
is ambivalently seen as either succour or another threat to regional stability.
Japan, while slowly crafting a more independent foreign policy, remains a
staunch us ally and Chinas traditional rival. Other actors deemed politically
and economically relevant in the region are South Korea, India, Australia, New
Zealand and the eu.
As a regional entity, asean has striven to accommodate all of these actors,
hence in the post-Cold War era it has operated under the vision of a multipolar world. Affirming this multi-polar view is the asean initiative to establish
46
47

Renato De Castro, Decision Making in Regional Organization: The ec and asean Experience
(Manila: Foreign Service Institute, 1989), p. 184.
C.M. Turnbull, Regionalism and nationalism, in Nicholas Tarling (ed.), The Cambridge
History of Southeast Asia, Vol. 4, Part 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000),
p. 300.

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extended forums for dialogue. The asean Regional Forum (arf)48 and asean+3,
for instance, attest to this conception of multi-polarity. The idea now is to
please all of these powers through economic and political cooperation so as
to assure the blessings of regional peace and prosperity. In other words, asean
seeks to be the nexus of partnerships, like a secularised version of a temple
establishing the connection between the gods and the people. However, the
gods of the present order have conflicting territorial interests which may be
anathema to certain asean states. The most obvious and order-disrupting issue
is, of course, that of the South China Sea. China wants to gobble the whole sea
with its nine-dashline at the expense of Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and
Malaysia. With its own territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku, Japan
wants to balance the prc by supporting asean claimant states. The us is apparently indecisive, maintaining a guarded rhetoric which espouses freedom of
navigation while sustaining a veritable military presence in the region. Obamas
pivot to East Asia, though officially not a policy of containment, has been interpreted as the United States willingness to balance China.49 The asean temple is
therefore at the mercy of this rising security concern. The gods want to reshape
the temple according to their designs.
Denial of Temporal Utility and Efficiency
Cambodias chairmanship made it easier for China to subtly convert the asean
temple in accordance with its will. With a combination of rhetoric functioning like a mantra, Cambodia made asean ineffective in facing the South China
Sea issue but still maintained an image of unity. asean liturgy has been guided
by the decision-making principles of musjawara and mufakat. Musjawara is a
negotiation style which makes it imperative for a leader not to impose his/her
will but to carefully consult everyone while consistently signifying the path

48

49

In the 1990s, the asean Regional Forum was initiated by the asean. It was formed in the
context of the end of the Cold War which left the Asia-Pacific searching for a new organizing principle for security; Sheldon W. Simon, Southeast Asian international relations:
is there institutional traction? in Narayanan Ganesan, and Ramses Amer (eds), International Relations in Southeast Asia: Between Bilateralism and Multilateralism (Singapore:
iseas, 2012), p. 50.
Margaret Talev, Obamas Asia pivot puts us approach to China on new path, Bloomberg
(19 November 2011), available at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-11-18/obama-s
-asia-pivot-puts-u-s-approach-to-china-on-new-path.html. See also Mark E. Manyin,
Stephen Daggett, Ben Dolven, Susan V. Lawrence et al., Pivot to the Pacific? The Obama
administrations rebalancing toward Asia, Congressional Research Service (28 March
2012), available at: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R42448.pdf.

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gamas

to communal unity. Mufakat or consensus is the disposition to uphold community interest.50 Though the principles affirm the sovereignty of each member state, in the context of regionalism they nevertheless set the stage for a
tragedy. Scholars and observers have expressed the notorious asean tendency
to enshrine unity while sacrificing productivity and efficiency. No wonder, then,
the asean Way has earned for the regional movement the pejorative tag of
being a talk shop.51
Cambodia skilfully exploited these decision-making principles in obedience
to its debt of gratitude to its patron China. Looking back at what transpired in
the 2012 asean summits, Cambodia nudged mantras of agreement and unity
while smuggling in Chinas interest. The chairmans statements in both the
20th and the 21st summits are essentially the same. The common theme is the
emphasis on the importance of the doc, a token affirmation of the un Charter and the 1982 unclos and a close collaboration with China.52 But whereas
in the first statement the Chairman mentioned the eventual realisation of a
coc the later statement no longer explicitly mentions it, obviously in obedience to Chinas desire not to rush any binding agreement.53 Cambodia was
able to shape asean ritual in such a way that would insist on regional unity
without prejudice to Chinas interest. Most telling was the way Hor Namhong
blocked any consensus in the amm.54 He predefined an asean consensus which
precludes specific but outstanding issues in the South China Sea. Cambodia
framed the asean consensus as sacred, standing apart from the profanity of
individual state interest. Hor Namhong seemingly upheld mufakat while the
other members desire not to impose what they wanted in the spirit of musjawara blocked not only a concrete response but also the usual communiqu,
50

51

52

53
54

De Castro, Decision Making in Regional Organization, p. 107. See also Amitav Acharya,
Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia: asean and the Problem of Regional
Order, second edition (New York: Routledge, 2009), p. 55.
Takashi Terada, aseans talk shop function and us engagement, East Asia Forum (10
August 2011), available at: http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2011/08/10/asean-s-talk-shop
-function-and-us-engagement/.
asean Secretariat, Chairmans statement of the 20th asean Summit issued on 4 April 2012
in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, available at: http://www.asean.org/documents/20th%
20summit/FINAL%20Chairman%20Statement1330.pdf. See also Ministry of Foreign Affairs Cambodia and International Cooperation, Chairmans statement of the 21st asean
Summit, Phnom Penh, 18 November 2012, available at: http://asean2012.mfa.gov.kh/?page
=detail&article=343&lg=en.
asean Secretariat, Chairmans statement of the 20th asean Summit, Chairmans Statement of the 21st asean Summit.
Thayer, aseans Code of Conduct.

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a talisman of unity. Cambodia was motivated to drive away the evil spirits of
alienating China so as to assure it of its continued good fortune. Other member states were determined to drive away the Chinese maritime menace by
establishing the good fortune of a united asean stance. At this point the asean
temple was on the verge of ruin, but luckily Indonesian initiative came to the
rescue.
In the hope of conjuring another talisman of unity, Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa carried out classic shuttle diplomacy for two days, flying
between Manila, Hanoi, Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Singapore.55 Finally Marty
managed to make everyone agree to the Six Principles on the South China Sea.
Yet this is still nothing but a longer rehash of documents, international agreements and acceptable behaviour that virtually every member had agreed on
in the past. Nevertheless, it gave the symbolic assurance of asean unity over
the issue. The document does not set any policy agenda nor deny issues in the
South China Sea. It simply resembles a sutra imparting the blessing of unity
that will somehow dispel rumours of internal division. Like a god-king dispensing blessings, Hor Namhong in his capacity as asean chair formally released
the document on 20 July 2012.56 In imparting this blessing he could only be
held accountable for the general outcome: that is, encouraging the impression
of continuing regional unity. Hor Namhong could escape the blame of causing
disunity by attributing it to the obstinacy of the Philippines and Vietnam or the
machinations of major powers, all of which were beyond its immediate powers.
This exemplifies how power is decoupled from accountability.
Apart from being a documentary talisman of unity, the Phnom Penh asean
summits are conducted in their usual ceremonial intricacies that underscore
the sovereignty of individual member states and their overall regional unity.57

55

56

57

Olivia Rondonuwu, asean to claim common ground on South China Sea, but no communiqu, Reuters (20 July 2012) http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/20/oukwd-uk
-asean-sea-idAFBRE86J09T20120720. See also Carlyle A. Thayer, Behind the scenes of
aseans breakdown, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Cogit asia (20 July
2012), available at: http://cogitasia.com/behind-the-scenes-of-aseans-breakdown/.
Son Duan, asean releases joint statement on East Sea, Than Nien news.com (21 July
2012), available at: http://www.thanhniennews.com/index/pages/20120721-asean-releases
-statement-on-east-sea.aspx. See also Kong Sothanarith, asean reaffirms commitment to
resolve South China Sea issue, Voice of America, Khmer (20 July 2012), available at: http://
www.voacambodia.com/content/asean-reaffirms-commitment-to-resolve-south-china
-seaissue/1441954.html.
Alice Ba portrayed asean summitry, especially the first summit in 1976, as a dramatic
demonstration and visual representation of asean solidarity; see Alice Ba, (Re)Negoti-

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gamas

The dignified sitting arrangements, the alphabetical precedence of Southeast


Asian states and, above all, the customary locking of hands of asean heads
of states and government are orchestrated in such a way as to inculcate the
awe and majesty of unity: political theatre par excellence. The outcome documents58 of the 21st asean summit, seemingly crafted to divert attention from a
more pressing concern, were also made to symbolise unity. However, the last
summit demonstrated certain ritual breaches. The rebuke of the Philippine
president to Hun Sens closing statement disrupted the mantra, consequently
revealing the lack of solidarity. Furthermore, the Philippine president, who was
then suffering from flu, excused himself from attending the remaining ceremonies of the summit, which included the routine photographs.59 This may
be deduced as a subtle but deliberate display of disappointment on the part
of President Aquino. But in the Asian supernatural world view it may also be
interpreted as an omen, foretelling something inauspicious.
Yet despite the ritual impotence of Cambodian chairmanship with regard
to the South China Sea, member states persist in their hope for a veritable
coc within the regional framework. So long as asean member states do not
drastically disrupt the equilibrium of the current status quo regional order, then
asean will be deemed successful. Disunity in facing a security concern is not
the issue; the priority is the preservation of the status quo. For the member
states, what good is it to be materially effective if this results in a conflagration?
What they lack in action, the member states make up in their ritual statements
of unity.

Conclusion
The tragedy of the Southeast Asian commons is the ritual impotence of asean
decision-making in the face of Chinas aggressiveness in the South China Sea.
Amid the tragedy of intra-asean infighting exacerbated by Cambodias brokering for China, regional non-responsiveness is still tolerable since the ritual

58

59

ating East and Southeast Asia: Region, Regionalism and the Association of Southeast Asian
Nations (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 82.
The outcome documents are: Phnom Penh Statement on the Adoption of the asean
Human Rights Declaration; asean Human Rights Declaration (ahrd); asean Leaders
Joint Statement on the Establishment of an asean Regional Mine Action Centre (armac);
and Concept Paper on the Establishment of an asean Regional Mine Action Centre
(armac), (asean Secretariat News, 2012).
Dacanay, Aquino rebukes Hun Sen.

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rubrics have guaranteed regional unity and promised future resolution. Ritualism may be an ingredient for disaster, but it may also be an instrument for
regionalisms survival. Ritualism has made it possible for asean to display solidarity while tolerating indecision. aseans future in addressing its number one
security concern may be in doubt, but paradoxically this allows the regional
organisation to continue to exist despite the odds. This all the more reinforces
the asean image of a temple, ritually and symbolically useful but pragmatically useless. Behind a temples magnificence is another purpose. Behind its
cultic function is a tomb, a mausoleum enshrining the relic of a glorious past
where heads of states pay a biannual pilgrimage. That pilgrimage may remain
as a parochial search to ensure separate national interests or simply to honour a memory. However, it could also be a platform to cooperate with fellow
pilgrims, unifying in a veritable effort to transform their supplications into a
common front of action and so have control over their common destiny.

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