THE Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which sometimes boasts being a more cohesive group than the European Union, has never had a reputation for expressing in clear language its policies and positions on matters of critical interest to the world and the Asia-Pacific region.
When the matter is close to home, like the ongoing dispute over the South China Sea and the rising tension between the United States and China over Chinese construction activities in the disputed waters, Asean is reduced to incoherence and ambivalence.
This tendency was never on greater display than in Kunming, China, this week, where Asean foreign ministers met with their Chinese counterpart to ostensibly promote greater understanding of the SCS dispute and the rival claims of various nations to islets in the important waterway.
At the close of such a meeting, it is normal for the guests and host to issue a joint statement, or failing that, separate statements on any progress made with all the talking. In previous Asean Summits and meetings in which China’s wrongdoings against an Asean member was discussed, the majority’s wish to identify the issue and state a mild censure of China has always been trumped by pro-China Asean members, countries that unnecessarily behave as if their very economic life depends on aid and loans from the People’s Republic.
What came out of the Kunming meeting, as we, in The Times, expected, was a pair of contradictory statements from one Asean member and the Asean secretariat.
The confusion started when Malaysia’s foreign ministry, evidently on its own initiative, released late Tuesday a bold Asean statement, which we suspect all but the pro-China Asean members had endorsed, warning that recent actions in the disputed waters, without naming China, had “the potential to undermine peace.”
The statement was labeled “media statement by Asean foreign ministers.”
The following day, Indonesia and the Asean secretariat in Indonesia retracted the statement, saying that it was issued in error.
A Malaysian foreign ministry spokeswoman tried to clarify that the
text released by Malaysia was merely a “media guideline,” not an agreed final statement.
But the deed was done. The retracted statement described “a candid exchange”—language that hinted at a diplomatic confrontation—between the bloc’s foreign ministers and their Chinese counterpart.
Various theories have been advanced by analysts on what really happened in Kunming. One said that Asean backtracked on its tough stance, after coming under pressure from China. Another said that Malaysia released the statement prematurely by mistake. And then there are those analysts who said that China got what it wanted from the talks on its home ground.
Whatever the explanation, the confusion and disarray at the meeting’s end underscored Asean’s perennial inability to present a united front toward China—which many believe has enabled China to expand its sway over much of the South China Sea despite overlapping claims.
The differences of position within the bloc are sharp. The Philippines and Vietnam have come into direct confrontation with China over territorial disputes. Non-claimants such as Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar have sided with Beijing.
Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam have generally walked a delicate line somewhere in the middle.
As if to punctuate the failure of the meeting, a scheduled news conference of conference participants was cancelled. Many Asean foreign ministers left immediately.
The speechlessness has arisen because most Asean countries, several of which are highly dependent on smooth trade relations with China, are wary of commenting on the South China Sea issue ahead of a UN tribunal’s imminent ruling in the case brought by the Philippines against China.
Asean may want to wait until the arbitration decision comes out before making any sort of clear joint statement as a group.
What we thought was a hardening of language by Asean on China’s island-building was a mirage. The community has more work to do—or break up. The original founders of Asean should remain together as Asean and the rest should become members of a newly named group—Asean Additionals plus China.