Consensus principle: Democracy is hurting ASEAN?


Consensus decision-making is a group decision-making process in which group members develop, and agree to support, a decision in the best interest of the whole. Consensus may be defined professionally as an acceptable resolution, one that can be supported, even if not the "favourite" of each individual. Consensus is defined by Merriam-Webster as, first, general agreement, and second, group solidarity of belief or sentiment. It has its origin in the Latin word cōnsēnsus (agreement), which is from cōnsentiō meaning literally feel together. It is used to describe both the decision and the process of reaching a decision. Consensus decision-making is thus concerned with the process of deliberating and finalizing a decision, and the social, economic, legal, environmental and political effects of using this process.
But, that consensus principle is hurting a unity of one of the biggest regional organizations, ASEAN. ASEAN deeply divided on how to deal with China's territorial expansion in the South China Sea that has impacted some of its members and whipped up an increasing diplomatic quagmire. ASEAN's cardinal principle is decisions by consensus, which means any country can veto a proposal. This time, it appears to be Cambodia, China's close ally.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration found that China had no basis for its expansive claims to territorial waters around the Philippines. China has similar claims against other ASEAN nations, including Vietnam and Malaysia, and the ruling should have emboldened ASEAN to challenge Beijing more forcibly.
But that's being prevented by Cambodia, said diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media. They said the draft statement to be issued by the ministers on Tuesday left blank spaces under the heading "South China Sea" until a consensus can be reached.
In 2012, Cambodia also blocked a reference to the dispute, which ended with the ministers failing to issue a statement for the first time in the bloc's history.
This political and diplomatic incident revealed a deep crack in ASEAN, and the challenge now is how to reconcile the interests of particular member states and those of the whole bloc.
Only when a multilateral agreement is reached can bilateral solutions become feasible. Even those ASEAN countries without a direct interest in the disputes should keep in mind the benefits they gain from regional stability, and the cohesion and unity of ASEAN. Moreover, each of these countries has already committed to build an ASEAN community by 2015. This community must be built upon a common foundation, and develop with common goals and directions. The territorial disputes over the South China Sea are shaking this foundation, threatening the goals and security of the region. Hence, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea are not merely a bilateral matter, but should be a great concern for the whole of ASEAN.
There are two sides to ASEAN’s failure to issue a joint communiqué in Phnom Penh. On the positive side, it showed that ASEAN persistently seeks consensus, which is often regarded as a sign of unity within the organisation. Any action or statement delivered in the name of ASEAN has signified to outsiders that a consensus has been achieved within the group. The diversity of political structure, culture, ethnicity, religion and economic development within and among ASEAN member states, and the divergence of views over the South China Sea disputes, show that this principle will likely remain significant in the coming years if cohesion and unity are to be maintained and the dream of creating an economic community by 2015 is to become reality.
However, the other side of this principle might damage the dream. What occurred in Phnom Penh has led many to question the practicability of pursuing ‘one community with one fate’, and even the likely efficacy of the organisation’s performance after 2015 when this community is in place. It is also useful to ask why the consensus principle has been maintained. Apart from the positive significance, it seems the consensus principle has been maintained by some member states to prevent ASEAN from interfering in their internal affairs — almost all members have problems of human rights violations and ethnic conflict. Ironically, the consensus principle is now threatening the unity of the group when the national interests of one member state prevail at the expense of others. Cambodian diplomats made use of this weak point to prevent the group from raising a common concern about regional security in a document that was supposed to showcase ASEAN’s unity. To bypass a similar incident in the future, it is time for ASEAN to reconsider the meaning of the consensus principle.
Consensus is still necessary to maintain ASEAN’s unity, but it need not always be absolute. In any situation, consensus means that all members of the group can come to an agreement, so long as it satisfies the needs or interests of one party and does not harm those of other members. For a consensus to be absolute, however, all parties must share the same concerns and be willing to sacrifice part or all of their interests for the common cause. Many strands of international relations theory, borne out by much practical experience, would argue that absolute consensus rarely occurs when national interests are a critical factor. Instead, many now look toward to an approach based on compromise, or a non-absolute consensus. In this situation, consensus does not mean that everyone has to accept a decision; consensus should be understood as having everyone’s ideas heard equally and stated in the final document in an objective and unbiased manner.
       Cambodia’s rather crude pro-China manoeuvre created a crack in ASEAN’s unity. Yet the recent failure to issue a joint communiqué at the 45th Ministerial Meeting should not be considered a hopeless experience; it should be seen as an opportunity to rewrite the consensus principle, which, to date, has been undermining ASEAN’s credibility in the world arena./.
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