This week the ten ASEAN member states released a joint statement on climate change during the 15th ASEAN summit. Beyond the standard boilerplate, it’s clear that ASEAN and its constituent states are preparing for an aggressive negotiation at Copenhagen—a move that aligns it heavily with China, but less so with its citizens. While nominally voicing support for the outgoing Kyoto Protocol and for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), one phrase in particular sums up its approach: “in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” Although this position is not a new one, it is an indication that ASEAN is unlikely to show flexibility in its insistence that developed nations “take the lead” in reducing emissions. Whether the approval of ASEAN’s neighbor to the north is worth popular outrage remains to be seen.
There is, on the whole, little disagreement within the ASEAN governments about Copenhagen. The Singaporean Minister for the Environment, Yaacob Ibrahim, summed it up when he stated last week that, “We are not obligated to set targets or reduce emissions.” This sentiment has been widely echoed; to date, only Indonesia has committed to emissions cuts.
The question raised by this aggressive stance is how deeply it will pit ASEAN governments against their neighbors and their own citizens. Australia and Japan have voiced strong disapproval over the neighbors’ intransigence. A huge rally in Bangkok illustrated the extent of popular outrage over perceived inaction on climate change. At a Greenpeace protest at the Thailand summit, protestors railed against the states’ inactions on emissions and forestry: “Yet, instead of recognising their enormous obligation to safeguard the region, ASEAN appears to still be in denial over these threats.”
China and India are very likely the prime movers behind ASEAN’s united front. As the largest bilateral trade partners with ASEAN nations, they have vastly more leverage than Australia, Japan, or even popular protests. It is difficult to imagine that at Copenhagen, the individual ASEAN member states will have the gall to buck the Chinese mantra: “We’re all for emissions cuts – you go first.”