The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) made last-minute changes in the Chairman’s Statement released by President Rodrigo Duterte after the conclusion of the Leaders’ Summit late Saturday. The final statement made no mention of China’s construction and land reclamation at the South China Sea.
“We reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation and over flight in and above the South China Sea. We underscored the importance of the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” the statement read.
“We took note of the concerns expressed by some [Asean] leaders over the recent developments in the area.
We reaffirmed the importance of the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoiding actions that may further complicate the situation and pursuing the peaceful resolution of disputes, without resorting to the threat or use of force,” it added.
An earlier draft of the chairman’s statement cited a reference to “respect for legal and diplomatic processes”.
Another version also contained a call, championed by Vietnam according to
When Cambodia hosted the meeting last year, the country — which has strong economic ties to Beijing — controversially blocked a proposed joint ASEAN foreign ministers’ communique referring to the international tribunal’s ruling against China.
The statement diplomats, to cease “land reclamation and militarization” of the sea.
Both references were absent in the final statement.
“This reflects the Cambodianization of Philippine foreign policy. We’re starting to behave like Cambodia, which is extremely sensitive to China’s strategic interests,” said Renato de Castro, international studies professor at Manila’s De La Salle University.also did not mention the Philippines’ victory at the United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal in its case against China. Before the start of the summit, Duterte had said that he will not raise the issue because the case is between China and the Philippines.
Of the 10 Asean members, four of them have claims in the South China Sea — the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
The Asean instead took note of the improving cooperation between Asean and China and assured the public that the 50-year-old regional bloc is determined to hammer out a new Code of Conduct in the South China Sea when Manila hosts the second round of the Asean Summit in November, as well as the early operationalization of other early harvest measure such as Code for Unplanned Encounters in the South China Sea.
“We welcome the progress to complete a framework of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea by the middle of the year in order to facilitate the early conclusion of an effective Code of Conduct. We recognize the long term benefits that would be attained from having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability and sustainable development,” it said.
“On the ground, there is no hindrance to China achieving absolute dominance in the South China Sea, whether in military or civilian terms, regardless of parameters set by international law,” said Jay Batongbacal, from the University of the Philippines.
The statement “makes it more difficult for ASEAN to agree soonest on a consistent and unified basis for dealing with China and the maritime disputes,” he said.
Professor Bobby Tuazon, Director for Policy Studies at the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG), said the statement is no surprise because the communiques in previous Asean summits also did not mention China’s island building.
He noted that the maritime disputes concerning China created tensions and led to acrimonious debates.
Another political analyst, Prof. Ramon Casiple, said the non-inclusion of the arbitral court’s ruling on the case filed by the Philippines against China does not mean that Manila and other countries claiming parts of the South China Sea are giving up their claim.
Casiple said that raising the arbitral tribunal’s ruling would have clashed with Asean’s position on pushing for the completion of the maritime Code of Conduct.
“Prudence dictates that the ruling need not be raised. This is not a question of criticizing the activities in the South China Sea, remember other countries like Indonesia and Vietnam also have oppositions but they did not insist on it also,” he explained.
Tuazon said that Asean dynamics cannot be separated from vibrant undercurrents ensuing from bilateral relations between member states on one hand, and China on the other that have grown increasingly important in the past 20 years.
According to him, these bilateral relations have enhanced economic cooperation in trade and investments that will likely be boosted by the China-initiated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as well as the ambitious Belt and Road economic paradigm that interconnects regions and continents.
“Whether we like it or not, such economic breakthroughs influence how Asean member-states think and take positions on sensitive issues pragmatically without risking their constructive relationships with China,” Tuazon said.
North Korean threat
The joint statement of the Asean also raised grave concern over recent developments in the Korean Peninsula.
Casiple said there is really reason to be concerned because the Philippines, this year’s chairman of Asean, is within the range of North Korean missiles.
Duterte on Saturday called on US President Donald Trump and other concerned parties to exercise restraint to deescalate tension in the Korean Peninsula.
“I think the President is playing along with the position of the US to let China talk with North Korea,” said Casiple.
Batongbacal agreed that the US and North Korea should exercise restraint.
“Although members of Asean are neutral since the Korean Peninsula is out of their jurisdiction, the Asean leaders must exert efforts since the peninsula is so close to Asean nations,” Batongbacal told The Manila Times.
“The war can do damage. Asean should call on the parties to lower the tension,” he added.
With Jaime R. Pilapil Jeff Antiporda and AFP