The failure of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to issue a joint communiqué after a regular meeting of foreign ministers concluded in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh last Friday was truly unprecedented. It was the first time in the 45-year history of the Asean, a virtual paper factory with dozens of regularly scheduled, amply documented conferences every year, that a post-event statement could not be released. The failure bodes ill for the usefulness of the Asean as a regional association.
We should be clear: Nobody expected the Asean to issue a statement proposing a solution to the current controversy between the Philippines and China over claims to Scarborough Shoal. To be sure, the Philippines approached the foreign ministers’ conference hoping to convince the nine other member-countries of the Asean to advance the discussion regarding China’s recent expansive claims over the South China Sea. But it was always a long shot—China, a long-time regular dialogue partner of the association, is not only the dominant economic power in the region; it is also closely allied with at least three Asean member-countries.
The genius of a regional conference, however, lies in its members’ ability to nuance differences and finesse common ground. That Southeast Asia’s chief diplomats could not agree on an inoffensive passage or paragraph that would have assured all Asean members without taking a position against China is therefore a failure of diplomacy. (Southeast Asia scholar Carl Thayer defined the problem simply: “I find it difficult to believe that Asean foreign ministers cannot come up with some formulation that satisfies all parties.”) That the extraordinary inability to issue a statement was in likelihood a concession to China means it was also a failure of the Asean as Asean—that is, as a regional bloc.
The association’s secretary general, Surin Pitsuwan of Thailand, told reporters the crux of the matter was the insistence by Vietnam and the Philippines that the joint communiqué reflect the current impasse at Scarborough Shoal. Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said the actual demand was even narrower. “We simply wanted the fact that we discussed the issue… reflected in the joint communiqué, no more, no less. It would have just been a simple sentence or paragraph in the communiqué. We just want a recognition that the Scarborough Shoal was in fact discussed.” (The Asean secretariat, incidentally, supported the position that some mention of the discussion must be included in the statement.)
But Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong blamed both the Philippines and Vietnam for “taking the communiqué as a hostage and insisting on turning the 10-nation group to a tribunal.” As best as we can tell, this is a dishonest account. While the week-long discussions may have included attempts to find a resolution to the controversies—isn’t that, after all, the point of a regular meeting of equal members?—the discussion over the communiqué must have been a different matter altogether. Any communiqué is a distillation of the conference it seeks to document; the assertion that the communiqué was held hostage makes sense only if the Philippines and Vietnam had insisted on including in the final statement some sort of consensus that was not in fact reached during the conference, or strong language that was not in keeping with Asean’s tradition of regional harmony.
But as we have learned from various news reports, Cambodia from the start wanted to discourage discussion of any issue with bilateral import—code, in this context, for the territorial disputes which China wants to be resolved bilaterally. This was a precondition which undermined the very nature of the Asean; surely, the role of a regional conference is to promote a regional, that is a multilateral, approach to common issues.
The unfortunate result of host Cambodia’s renewed emphasis on the virtues of neutrality was that the somewhat acrimonious end of the latest conference favored a nonmember, rather than Asean’s own. Cambodia, in other words, was “neutral” for China.