Hours after agreeing to a joint communique that referenced rising tensions in the South China Sea on Tuesday, ASEAN foreign ministers retracted their statement. The language in the original statement, describing “a candid exchange with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi,” noted the following, echoing language seen in previous ASEAN declarations in Sochi and at the Sunnylands summit last winter with U.S. President Barack Obama:
We expressed our 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.
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We emphasised the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation, which may raise tensions in the South China Sea.
We stressed the importance of maintaining peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
According to AFP, a Malaysian foreign ministry spokeswoman noted that the statement had to be amended. “We have to retract the media statement by the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) foreign ministers… as there are urgent amendments to be made,” she said.
ASEAN foreign ministers from the ten member states of the regional body—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam—were in China on the invitation of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, for a special meeting.
It’s unclear why precisely the statement was retracted for amendment. As of this writing, the ASEAN foreign ministers have not reissued an amended statement. It is likely that the statement drew private protest from Beijing; even while it did not mention China by name, it was unusual for ASEAN ministers to implicitly criticize Chinese behavior on Chinese soil.
If the statement is reissued with a softening of the language on the South China Sea—or an outright omission of the issue—it may raise new questions about ASEAN’s willingness to jointly stand up to Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea, where Beijing has built artificial islands and increased its military footprint in recent years.
ASEAN unity over the South China Sea has been a fraught issue. In 2012, at their Cambodia summit, ASEAN foreign ministers, for the first time in their history, failed to issue a joint communique, after a highly publicized stand-off that year between the Philippines and China over Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.
Among ASEAN states, only the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia are direct claimants in the South China Sea disputes. Indonesia has recently encountered difficulties with illegal Chinese fishing activities in its exclusive economic zone, but does not acknowledge a dispute with China.
The retraction of the ASEAN statement also comes as regional states and China anticipate the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Philippines v. China case, which is expected to rule on the status of several features claimed by both states in the South China Sea and possibly even China’s expansive nine-dash line claim. The court will not rule on the sovereignty of individual features.
This is a developing story and will be updated if ASEAN issues a new statement.