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.
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.
Clinton also added a much needed sense of fun, promising to pay off a bet to her Japanese counterpart lost after the US women’s soccer team went down to Japan 3-1 on penalties. She bet New York apples, while Takeaki Matsumoto punted with Japanese pears.
But in diplomatic reality, ASEAN’s influence over North or South Korea is negligible.
Almost ironically the same can be said the for bloody border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand, which was also on the agenda amid much shouting by ASEAN that it should and would find a resolution to the dispute. Hardly.
In the end, any grandstanding on that issue was trumped by an International Court of Justice ruling that effectively found in Phnom Penh’s favour, and ordered both sides to withdraw their troops and return to boundaries as they existed before Thai soldiers crossed the order in 2008.
China flatly refuses to allow a similar court to arbitrate on its territorial claims in the South China Sea, which in some quarters is now being called the West Philippine Sea.
ASEAN also appeared intent on allowing Burma to take its turn as the rotating chair in 2014, leaving a bad taste at the conference.
Again, it was up to the Americans to save ASEAN’s moral bacon, pointing out that having such a country at the helm of an association that operates under the motto ‘Promoting peace and security through dialogue and co-operation in the Asia Pacific’ would be totally inappropriate.
Elsewhere, words like ‘constructive engagement’ were bandied about as India and ASEAN agreed to upgrade their trade relationship, while Laos was praised for bowing to environmental concerns and deferring construction of the 3.5 billion Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River.
The European Union was chastised for failing to send a high-level delegation to the meet, while seeking to add some urgency to its bid to open talks on Free Trade Agreements with countries in the region. Negotiations are underway with Singapore and Malaysia, while it hopes to begin talks with Vietnam and Indonesia shortly.
The meetings attracted 1,000 delegates from 27 countries, with 566 journalists from 158 media outlets in 157 countries accredited to cover.Had it not been for Clinton and her country’s ability to take a stand on issues that directly impact on ASEAN they might as well have all stayed at home.
‘With China becoming ever more assertive, many Asian countries are looking to the United States to balance China’s rapid growth, while at the same time avoiding unnecessary conflict,’ Asia Society Executive Vice President Jamie Metzl said.
‘Asian attention is also on the United States, where increasing debt problems and an inability to address them politically put America’s staying power as a forward-deployed global force into question,’ he said.
‘Asian powers, however, should not underestimate the United States. Home to the largest and still most creative economy in the world, the US will play a leading role in Asia for many decades to come.’