By Loke Hoe Yeong
The regional grouping ASEAN had its second historical moment of disarray when it failed to issue a joint statement on their position on the South China Sea, after a key summit between ASEAN and China held in Kunming. In 2012, ASEAN ministers failed – for the first time in their history – to issue a joint communiqué among themselves after a summit in Phnom Penh, hosted by the ASEAN chair for that year, Cambodia.
This key meeting between ASEAN and China, co-chaired by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, had been in the works for some time, to take place in Kunming, which it did. There is some dispute as to the true intent of that meeting. It was apparently first broached by Malaysia’s foreign minister Anifah Aman with China at the ASEAN foreign ministers’ retreat in Laos this February.
Some diplomats involved had framed the meeting as preparation for a commemorative summit to be held later this year to mark the 25th anniversary of relations between China and the grouping. But more likely, it was a face-saving way that was essentially on the contentious South China Sea conflict.
At the heart of the conflict has been the principle of ASEAN centrality – that the South China Sea conflict is a conflict to be resolved between China and ASEAN as a whole. China’s stance, however, is that the conflict in fact involves bilateral relation – namely, with the claimant countries with regard to the South China Sea dispute.
While at the 2012 Phnom Penh summit, the blame was generally apportioned to Cambodia for scuttling the joint communiqué, the draft of which was said to contain some unflattering accusations leveled at China, also in regard to the South China Sea conflict. The assumption then was that China had pressured Cambodia, which has close economic links with China, to exercise its veto on the final version of the joint ASEAN communiqué.
This time, in a summit at which China is present, it looks clearer that China has been executing a strategy of divide-and-rule over ASEAN countries – according to a detailed account published by The Diplomat, citing sources involved in the summit itself.
Laos and Cambodia, the culprits?
Prashanth Parameswaran, writing in The Diplomat, cited a source who attended the meeting who said that China not only pressured its ASEAN counterparts in a heavy-handed attempt for the regional grouping to adopt China’s own preferred stance on the South China Sea issue, as encapsulated in the “ten-point consensus” statement.
Crucially among these ten points put forward by China was that which insisted that the South China Sea dispute would be regarded as a bilateral issue between China and individual claimant states. This was what China had attempted to ram through ta the meeting.
China had recently, in April, attained support for a four-point consensus on the South China Sea issue between Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and itself – reports by China’s state media which were subsequently denied by each of ASEAN countries. This was effectively interpreted as a “divide and rule” strategy.
This meant that China was going head-on, on the principle of ASEAN centrality, “leading to anger among some the room”.
This ultimately led Malaysia to unilaterally release a joint statement which had been drafted by the ASEAN member states already in the lead-up to the summit – a statement which China has tried to also pressure ASEAN from releasing.
The statement also spoke of “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”, besides calling for the freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law.
Malaysia, however, retracted that statement some hours later, which led to confusion with the media whether such a statement was released in the name of a joint ASEAN effort.
According to the earlier cited article in The Diplomat, this was the ASEAN statement that failed to be released by the grouping, because Cambodia and Laos withdrew their support for the statement. ASEAN meetings and summits of its leader operate on a consensus approach when releasing such declarations of their positions, unlike the European Union, for instance which uses a qualified majority voting system in their decision making processes among EU member states.
Laos’ withdrawal of support for the drafted ASEAN statement was particularly lethal to ASEAN unity, given that it holds the ASEAN chairmanship this year.
Cambodia’s and Laos’ withdrawal of support for the statement was brought about by China’s unhappiness with ASEAN and with that drafted statement, which was ostensibly achieved by China applying its leverage over the two ASEAN countries most dependent on it economically.