JAKARTA: Indonesia said on Wednesday that a bold statement from Southeast Asian nations raising concern over Beijing’s island-building in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) was issued in error, as a meeting over the issue ended in confusion.
In a statement released late Tuesday by Malaysia’s foreign ministry, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) warned that recent actions in the disputed waterway had “the potential to undermine peace.”
The statement described “a candid exchange” —language that hinted at a diplomatic confrontation — between the bloc’s foreign ministers and their Chinese counterpart at a meeting in Kunming, China.
But just hours later, a Malaysian foreign ministry spokeswoman said the Asean secretariat had retracted the statement headlined “Media statement by the Asean foreign ministers,” pending “urgent amendments.”
The text released by Malaysia was merely a “media guideline,” not an agreed final statement, for Asean ministers to refer to at a post-meeting news conference, Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said.
Analysts gave various theories, with one saying Asean had backtracked after coming under pressure from China, while another said Malaysia appeared to have released the statement prematurely by mistake.
Either way, the disarray was another example of the bloc’s perennial inability to present a united front toward China, which observers say has allowed Beijing to expand its sway over much of the South China Sea despite overlapping claims.
Asean members the Philippines and Vietnam have come into direct confrontation with China over territorial disputes, while non-claimants such as Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar have maintained closer ties with Beijing.
Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam, meanwhile, have generally walked a delicate line somewhere in the middle.
Nasir said the meeting of Southeast Asian foreign ministers and China had run over schedule, meaning that “the press conference was canceled and a number of Asean foreign ministers had to leave immediately.
“The Asean foreign ministers did not have a chance to discuss how they would release the content of the media guideline to the media.”
Malaysian officials could not be reached for comment but the Asean secretariat in Jakarta said no official statement was issued after the meeting.
Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asian politics analyst currently at Turkey’s Ipek University, said the affair seemed to stem from a Malaysian misstep.
She noted that Asean countries, several of which are highly dependent on smooth trade relations with China, have been wary of commenting on the South China Sea issue ahead of a UN tribunal’s imminent ruling in a case brought by the Philippines against China.
China does not recognize the arbitration and has reacted angrily to Manila’s pursuit of legal action over the Beijing-controlled Scarborough Shoal.
“I think they [Asean] want to wait until the arbitration decision comes out before making any sort of clear joint statement as a group,” Welsh said.
Southeast Asia expert Carl Thayer, however, said China appeared to have reacted to reports about the statement.
“China obviously objected to the wording of the joint statement,” said Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “This led to the Asean secretariat’s decision to rescind the earlier release.”
China claims nearly all of the strategic South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) and has bolstered its claim by building artificial islands including airstrips in the area, some of which are suitable for military use.
In 2012, an annual meeting of Asean foreign ministers ended in chaos and unprecedented rancor, with the Philippines accusing hosts Cambodia of blocking a strong statement accusing China of raising tensions in the region.
The gathering ended with no joint ministers’ communique for the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history.
In recent years, however, Asean has hardened its language amid the Chinese island-building, while taking pains not to mention China by name.