In the lead-up to this year’s ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) expectations were high. The annual talkfest had promised it would deliver on mounting concerns about potential conflict zones, specifically the Spratly and Paracel islands. North Korea, climate change, food security and trade were also on the agenda.
In the end, however, it was a case of follow the money in a series of talks ASEAN hosted with its dialogue partners including the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers meeting. Only the United States stood out for its ability to speak plainly on awkward subjects.
As such, there was no great leap forward on resolving regional tensions. The much vaunted honest and frank discussions the 10 members of the Association of South East Nations had anticipated with their northern neighbour China over the Spratlys didn’t happen either.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Trade and more trade dominated the programme. It came disguised in many forms, whether dressed up in arguments about climate change and food security, or in the usual bilateral and multilateral pacts that countries from New Zealand to the United States (and most points in between) hope to sign with ASEAN.
Even the Spratlys – contested by China, The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei – couldn’t escape the overwhelming presence of trade.
‘The South China Sea is of relevance, not just to the countries of ASEAN and China, but of relevance to all of us given that it sees a huge proportion of the world's trade traverse its waters,’ Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said rather glibly.
The parties did sign off on the second stage of the Declaration of Conduct, designed to resolve competing claims in the Spratlys between China and ASEAN members in an orderly and peaceful way. The initial stage – to suggest the initial code – was signed off on in 2002.
Keith Loveard, a security analyst with Jakarta-based Concord Consultancy, said the code of conduct was ‘something of a breakthrough’ as it defied predictions that China wanted to work with each country on its own rather than through ASEAN.
The Chinese and ASEAN described the agreement as ‘very important’ but elsewhere the applause was half-hearted.
The Americans chipped in, noting claims over the South China Sea were ‘exaggerated,’ while Rory Medcalf of the Lowy Institute described the signing as ‘much exaggerated good news’ and added ‘it sounds impressive, but it will have almost no impact on the risks of incidents at sea.’
He said the focus on the agreement involved non-security issues like environment protection, marine science and transnational crime.
‘It’s not a proper code of conduct on the behaviour of each nation’s naval and auxiliary forces – which is really what is needed. Such a code isn’t a policy priority, at least as far as China is concerned,’ he said in a dispatch for the Lowy Institute.
A rare highlight came on the sidelines, with talks held by the chief nuclear envoys of South and North Korea, the first-ever meeting on nuclear issues between the two Koreas and a possible attempt to resume the six-party talks.
The talks followed a push by ASEAN to get North Korea back to the negotiating table and South Korea's Wi Sung-lac and North Korea's Ri Yong-ho seemed to have obliged.
This was supported by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who insisted Washington would continue to insist that Pyongyang takes further conciliatory steps towards Seoul before six-way nuclear talks – involving the United States, Russia, China, Japan and both Koreas – resume.