IT WAS meant to be a showcase of regional amity, celebrating a quarter-century of dialogue between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But the special meeting of foreign ministers in the Chinese city of Kunming ended in disarray and rancor, when a joint message with a strong statement on the South China Sea issue was released, then denied and retracted within hours.
Singapore-based analyst Ian Storey called the incident a “diplomatic fiasco”—but it was also a sign, the clearest one yet, that Chinese dominance in the region has split the Asean bloc, and prevented it from speaking in one voice. This inability has worrying implications for the peaceful and calibrated resolution of the various maritime and territorial conflicts in the South China Sea.
The joint statement of the Asean ministers was released by the Malaysian foreign ministry late Tuesday. It included the following passage: “We expressed our serious concerns over recent and ongoing developments, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and which may have the potential to undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.” The statement did not mention any country in particular, but it was clear that the reference was to “recent and ongoing developments” undertaken by China, including the reclamation of land in disputed reefs and the installation of military facilities in the Spratlys and the Paracels.
Within hours, the Malaysian foreign ministry felt compelled to recall the statement, saying “there are urgent amendments to be made.” The spokesperson of the Indonesian foreign ministry characterized the initial statement as a mere “media guideline” and not an official message or communiqué. And a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry denied that a statement was even in the program. “This meeting was a closed-door meeting and from the beginning there was no preparation to make a joint statement.”
But the Straits Times of Singapore reported that two of China’s closest allies in Asean had objected to the prepared statement. “It is understood … that the statement had been blocked because Laos and Cambodia—both reliant on China for investment and aid—had objected to it.”
Regional experts saw China’s increasingly visible hand in the picture. Said Southeast Asia expert Carl Thayer: “China obviously objected to the wording of the joint statement. This led to the Asean secretariat’s decision to rescind the earlier release.”
Tellingly, only Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi showed up at the scheduled news conference at the close of the special ministers’ meeting. While it is true that the meeting had run long and that some Asean foreign ministers had had to leave, Wang could have been joined by any of the remaining ministers, or even by the Asean secretary-general. A summit to mark 25 years of dialogue should have ended with a display of that dialogue in action.
Instead, and despite the excuse of “urgent amendments,” the ministers failed to issue a joint communiqué.
This is unfortunate. It brings sharply back to mind the turmoil of the 2012 foreign ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh, when host Cambodia heeded China’s admonitions and for the first time in its history Asean failed to issue the traditional joint statement at the end of an annual meeting.
It also brings us yet more proof that China has successfully split Asean on the South China Sea issue, preventing it from offering a unified position. This has serious consequences.
For the Asean claimant countries, and especially for both the Philippines and Vietnam, the two countries which have pursued their claims most vigorously, the lack of a united Asean means that one viable solution has moved even further beyond reach. In 2002, China reached an agreement with Asean to negotiate a Code of Conduct for the resolution of disputes in the region. A decade and a half after that Declaration on the Conduct of Parties was sealed, the Code remains a figment of the diplomatic imagination.
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