Behind the scenes of ASEAN’s breakdown

Posted on July 27, 2012

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Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa recently conducted an intense round of shuttle diplomacy, visiting Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia in order to secure agreement on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea. When asked by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to sum up the results of his efforts he replied it was “back to business as usual”.

Natalegawa meant that he had managed to overcome the appearance of ASEAN disarray when the grouping’s foreign ministers were unable to reach agreement on four paragraphs on the South China Sea to be included in a draft joint communique to summarize the results of their meeting. The Cambodia-hosted event represented the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history that an ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) failed to agree on a joint statement.

Natalegawa stood alongside Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Hor Namhong when he issued ASEAN’s six-point statement. Hor Namhong, however, could not resist laying the blame for ASEAN’s failure to issue a joint communique on Vietnam and the Philippines, the two ASEAN countries that have clashed most openly with China on contested claims to the South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia also have disputes with China over particular bits of the maritime area.

The record of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) Retreat, however, tells a different story. According to notes of the discussions drawn up by a participant which this author has reviewed, Cambodia twice rejected attempts by the Philippines, Vietnam and other ASEAN members to include a reference to recent developments in the South China Sea. Each time Cambodia threatened that it would withhold the joint communique.

The South China Sea issue was discussed during the plenary session of the AMM Retreat. The Philippines spoke first and was followed by Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Cambodia.

Philippine Foreign Minister Albert Del Rosario described past and current examples of Chinese “expansion and aggression” that prevented “the Philippines from enforcing its laws and forcing the Philippines to retreat from its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).”

Del Rosario asked rhetorically, “what would be the real value of the Code of Conduct (COC) if we could not uphold the DOC [Declaration on Conduct of Parties]?”, which was first agreed to with China in 2002. Del Rosario ended his intervention stating it was “important that ASEAN’s collective commitment to the [DOC] be reflected in the joint communique of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting.”

Four other countries directly addressed this point. Vietnam described China’s recent creation of Sansha City over contested South China Sea islands and China National Offshore Oil Company’s invitation for foreign exploration bids in other contested maritime areas as “serious violations of Vietnam’s sovereignty and jurisdiction over its EEZ and Continental Shelf”.

Vietnam argued that the joint communique should reflect this. Indonesia underscored the importance of ASEAN acting with one voice and noted that recent developments were of concern to all ASEAN members. Indonesia endorsed concluding a Code of Conduct and promised to “circulate a non-paper on possible and additional elements of the COC”.

Malaysia endorsed the comments by Indonesia and stressed “We must talk with a single voice; ASEAN must show [its] united voice; [otherwise] our credibility will be undermined.” Malaysia concluded, “We must refer to the situation in the South China Sea, particularly any acts that contravene the international law on EEZ and continental shelves. It is totally unacceptable that we can’t have it in the joint communique. It is important that ASEAN has a clear expression of our concerns on the South China Sea in the joint communique.”

Singapore noted that “recent developments were of special concern” because they raised “novel interpretations of international law that could undermine the entire UNCLOS regime.” Singapore concluded by arguing “it is important that ASEAN has a clear expression of our concerns on the South China Sea in the joint communique … [It would be] damaging to us if we don’t say anything.”

Broken consensus
Until Cambodia spoke, no country took exception to the interventions by the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. When it was Cambodia’s turn to speak its foreign minister queried why it was necessary to mention Scarborough Shoal, where China and the Philippines were recently engaged in a two-month stand-off.

He then abruptly declared, “I need to be frank with you, in case we cannot find the way out, Cambodia has no more recourse to deal with this issue. Then, there will be no text at all. We should not try to impose national positions; we should try to reflect the common views in the spirit of compromise.”

At this point the discussion became heated, with both the Philippines and Vietnam continuing to argue their cases. Additional interventions were made by Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. The AMM Retreat was brought to an end by Hor Namhong, who declared, “We can never achieve [agreement] even though we stay here for the next four or five hours … If you cannot agree on the text of the joint communique; we have no more recourse to deal with this issue as the Chair of ASEAN.”

Natalegawa correctly pointed out that although no joint communique was issued, ASEAN foreign ministers did reach agreement on the “key elements” of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. As a result of his shuttle diplomacy, he said ASEAN foreign ministers agreed to “the early conclusion of a Regional Code of Conduct in the South China Sea”.

Cambodia, in its capacity as ASEAN chair, hosted two informal meetings between ASEAN and Chinese senior officials to discuss the way forward on the COC. China publicly announced that it was ready to enter into formal discussions with ASEAN “when conditions were ripe.”

If all goes to plan, ASEAN and Chinese senior officials will discuss the modalities of their forthcoming discussions. They still need to determine at what level they will meet, how often, and to whom they will report. Formal discussions are scheduled to commence in September and ASEAN officials hope to complete negotiations by November.

Natalegawa’s shuttle diplomacy provided a much-needed boost to ASEAN’s morale. His efforts also helped to dispel the perception outside of Southeast Asia that there was disunity among ASEAN members on how to deal with the South China Sea issue.

More importantly, Indonesia’s intervention served notice to Cambodia that as ASEAN’s chair for 2012 it could not unilaterally control ASEAN’s agenda. Natalegawa’s intervention was unprecedented in taking a leadership role that normally would fall to the ASEAN chair and signaled that Indonesia is willing to play a more proactive role in regional affairs. This is in contrast to the Suharto years when Indonesia, viewed as the natural leader of Southeast Asia, played a more low-key “softly, softly” role.

There could, however, be another meaning behind Natalegawa’s expression that ASEAN is “back to business as usual”. This second meaning could be a vague reference to China’s renewed assertiveness in seeking to exercise its jurisdiction over the South China Sea.

This has taken three forms. First, China has raised Sansha from county to prefecture level and given it administrative responsibility over the Paracel Islands, Macclesfield Bank and Spratly Islands. Indeed, Hainan provincial authorities rushed to appoint local officials to this new unit, and elections will be held to select representatives to the National People’s Congress.

Second, China’s southern Hainan province soon thereafter dispatched 30 trawlers and four escort vessels to fish in the waters in the Spratly Islands. The fleet first fished off Fiery Cross Reef before moving to Johnson South Reef, both contested areas.

Third, and most significantly, China’s Central Military Commission issued a directive establishing a military garrison in Sansha prefecture. This garrison, with its headquarters based at Woody Island, will have responsibility for national defense of an area covering two million square miles of water.

Business as usual, in the second sense, thus could mean that while ASEAN negotiates a COC with Beijing, China can be expected to simultaneously continue to apply pressure and intimidation on both the Philippines and Vietnam and seek other ways to sow discord among the grouping’s 10 members.

Carlyle Thayer is Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra.

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