Chinese pressure was blamed on Thursday for a stunning diplomatic U-turn by Southeast Asian nations that saw them retract a statement sounding alarm over Beijing’s island-building in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
The chaotic events at the end of a meeting of foreign ministers from China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on Tuesday have led to allegations of bullying by Beijing.
The document, released by Asean member Malaysia and described as a joint statement from the bloc, warned developments in the hotly contested South China Sea could “undermine peace, security and stability.”
The statement specified “land reclamation” as a source of tension, a clear reference to China’s massive island-building activities where it is trying to cement a claim to almost the whole sea.
But just hours later, Malaysia said the grouping was retracting the statement for “urgent amendments” but offered no reason.
Various participants have since given conflicting explanations over what happened.
An Asean diplomat who was present at the meeting in the Chinese city of Kunming told Agence France-Presse that China had turned the screws on some Southeast Asian nations to get them to withdraw their support.
“The usual factor, pressure from China,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, when asked why unity crumbled.
“I suspect the two countries that opposed the statement were Cambodia and Laos.”
Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper also reported on Thursday that the joint statement was “scuttled by the Chinese, who lobbied its friends in the grouping to block” it.
“Malaysia releasing it was a manifestation of the extreme frustration of the original five Asean members plus Vietnam at the particularly crude and arrogant behavior of the Chinese,” the Straits Times reported an Asean official as saying.
The Philippines also said on Thursday that there had originally been unanimous support within Asean for the strongly worded statement.
“By the time the meeting ended, there was an agreement among Asean foreign ministers. They agreed on the text of the Asean statement and they agreed it would be released,” Philippine Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose told reporters in Manila.
Jose said the statement was then retracted after the meeting had ended and most foreign ministers, including the Philippines’ Jose Rene Almendras, had left the venue to start returning home.
He would not be drawn on whether Chinese lobbying was to blame but insisted that Malaysia’s initial release had not been in error.
When asked why Malaysia gave the statement to the media, Jose said, “That was the point where there was consensus among Asean to have that statement. So by the time it was released, there was agreement.”
In a statement issued by the Philippines after the Asean meeting, the country expressed “serious concerns” over recent tensions in the South China Sea.
“[Asean foreign ministers] expressed their 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,” it said.
But China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a news conference in Beijing that the Asean had no plan to issue a joint declaration at the very beginning.
“After officially checking with the Asean side, we found out that the so-called joint statement in [an AFP]report is not an official document produced by Asean, and can in no way represent the unbiased position held by Asean,” he added.