Exclusive: China’s South China Sea Statement That Divided ASEAN
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Bt4wang

Exclusive: China’s South China Sea Statement That Divided ASEAN

 
 

Talking to several Southeast Asian diplomats either present at the recent ASEAN-China Special Foreign Ministers Meeting in Yuxi, China or familiar with the developments that took place, it is clear that China once again had a hand in preventing the issuance of a joint statement by the regional grouping on the South China Sea (See: “What Really Happened at the ASEAN-China Special Kunming Meeting“).

Background

While I have written a fuller account of what seems to have occurred, the gist of it is that China’s initially heavy-handed approach toward ASEAN on the issue led the grouping to consider releasing its own independent statement instead of one issued jointly with Beijing – a notable first. However, when China got wind of this statement – which was rather bold by ASEAN standards – it attempted to mollify the grouping and suggest that it sign on to Beijing’s own statement – the so-called “ten-point consensus.” While most ASEAN states found this unacceptable, it did lead a couple of countries in the grouping, most notably Laos and Cambodia, to now reconsider their stance on the earlier joint statement, which eventually led to it not being issued.

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What, then, did this ten-point consensus say? And why was it so difficult for most ASEAN countries to accept? As of the time of this writing, the ten-point consensus – a rather boilerplate statement – has not been made available publicly. Having read the document, and given the controversy surrounding it, it is worth examining what it says in greater detail.

Deciphering the Ten-Point Consensus

The ten-point consensus is essentially divided into three parts. The first part talks about ASEAN-China relations more broadly, the second part addresses what ASEAN and China should do together on the South China Sea issue, and the third and final part deals with the role of various actors on that question.

The first two points address ASEAN-China relations. This is in line with Beijing’s usual refrain that the South China Sea issue should be placed within the broader context of ASEAN-China relations and not blown out of proportion.

The first point states that ASEAN and China will use the opportunity afforded by the 25th anniversary of dialogue relations this year to push forward the ASEAN-China strategic partnership.

As I have mentioned in the past, Beijing is fond of using anniversaries to try and push new initiatives within the ASEAN-China relationship.

The second point mentions China’s support for ASEAN community building and its centrality in regional cooperation, as well as ASEAN’s support for China’s growth and Beijng’s “important role” in regional cooperation.

While the inclusion of these generalities may seem irrelevant, they may in fact have more significance than might be expected. As I mentioned in my earlier piece, multiple accounts from diplomats present at the meeting suggest that during the deliberations, China initially directly challenged the conception of ASEAN centrality, leaving several Southeast Asian participants frustrated.

The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth points address what ASEAN and China should do together on the South China Sea issue.

The third point states that they will work together to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea and enhance regional security and prosperity. This is the most general of the four points directly addressing the South China Sea issue.

The fourth point says that China and ASEAN will “properly handle the South China Sea issue, and will not let it affect the big picture of the China-ASEAN friendship and cooperation.”

This, again, is in line with Beijing’ efforts to downplay the South China Sea issue by telling Southeast Asian countries to put it in perspective within the wider relationship.

The fifth point states that ASEAN and China will commit themselves to implementing the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) fully and effectively and in its entirety, while also “advancing actively” the consultations on a binding code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, with a view to adopting it on the basis of consensus at an early date.

This is an reiteration of a long-held view by Beijing that the focus should be on full implementation of the DOC rather than advancing the COC, effectively enabling its foot-dragging on the latter document, which would be binding in nature and restrict China’s behavior.

The sixth point notes that both ASEAN and China will abide by key documents including the United Nations Charter, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia.

What is interesting about this point is that while it does reference UNCLOS – an international document – it also puts it alongside other regional and national documents, including the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.

The last four points concern the role of various actors on the South China Sea question.

The seventh point states that the countries “directly concerned” shall resolve territorial and jurisdictional disputes through friendly consultations and negotiations, without resorting to the threat or use of force.

This reflects China’s view that disputes should be settled among Beijing and individual claimant states rather than ASEAN as a whole or with the involvement of international tribunals, as with the case of the Philippines and the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA).

The eighth point notes that “all parties concerned” should exercise restraint, refrain from any actions that may complicate and escalate the disputes, and implement appropriate preventive measures for managing risks at sea as agreed upon as soon as possible.

The interesting portion of this point is the implementation of appropriate preventive measures for managing risks at sea. There have been conversations between ASEAN and China about the establishment of a hotline to manage maritime emergencies in the South China Sea as well as a proposal to apply the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) for naval vessels in the South China Sea, including through potential exercises between the two sides.

The ninth point states that ASEAN and China will uphold the freedom of navigation and overflight enjoyed by all countries under international law in the South China Sea.

This is a standard point that is in most ASEAN joint statements, although Beijing has been emphasizing that international concerns about it undermining freedom of navigation and overflight are exaggerated.

The tenth and final point calls upon “countries outside this region” to play a “constructive role for peace and stability in this region.”

This also comes as a little surprise, as Beijing has been hitting out at the United States in particular for interfering in the South China Sea disputes in an unconstructive manner and even emboldening some countries – especially the Philippines – to undertake escalatory steps.

Conclusions

What can we conclude, if anything, from China’s ten-point consensus?

First, as mentioned earlier, the document is boilerplate and does not really reveal much that is new. It is mostly a list of long-held Chinese positions and restatement of general principles with a few additions to also reflect broad ASEAN concerns, from Beijing’s respect of ASEAN centrality to the need to preserve freedom of navigation and overflight.

Second, there are a number of things that are quite clearly missing in the document. To cite just one example, the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities including land reclamation – two specific issues that have raised tensions in the South China Sea in recent years – are not even mentioned anywhere in the ten-point consensus. While it might not be surprising that China would not want to mention these developments, these are also rather significant things to be leaving out of a statement that Beijing would have wanted ASEAN to sign on to.

Third and finally, it is easy to see why most ASEAN states would not able to sign on to this document as a substitute for their own joint statement, which multiple diplomatic sources say there was initially full consensus on within the regional grouping. As I noted in a previous piece, that document was both more direct about ASEAN’s South China Sea concerns and also was more specific about the measures both sides could take to address those concerns. In contrast, the ten-point consensus reads more like a restatement of general principles and perspectives.

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