KUALA LUMPUR – Talking to some of the Southeast Asian countries whose representatives were present at the recent ASEAN-China special foreign ministers’ meeting in Kunming this week, 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, much like it did in Phnom Penh back in 2012 (See: “ASEAN’s Soul-Searching After Phnom Penh“). That might be read by some as yet another success of China’s divide and conquer tactics — whereby it seeks to pick off weaker ASEAN countries to undermine unity within the organization — and another failure for ASEAN (See: “A US-ASEAN South China Sea Failure at Sunnylands?“)
Yet an understanding of China’s intended narrative before the meeting as well as a closer study of the response by ASEAN as a whole and individual Southeast Asian states at both the private deliberations as well as in public statements – issued and not issued – clearly illustrates that this is a case where Beijing failed to achieve its intended objective and the majority of Southeast Asian countries did push back against China, at times far more than they have in the past.
From what Chinese officials had both traditionally said and had indicated ahead of the meeting, Beijing would have ideally wanted the narrative that emerged out of the meeting to emphasize three major points or aspects. First, China and individual Southeast Asian states are more than capable of handling their differences with respect to the South China Sea without outside interference, including an upcoming verdict from the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) which the Philippines had unwisely consulted (See: “Does the Philippines’ South China Sea Case Against China Really Matter?“).
Second, to the extent that the South China Sea issue is affecting China’s ties with some Southeast Asian states, the issue ought not to be blown out of proportion since it is just one issue in China’s otherwise highly successful dialogue partnership with ASEAN as both sides celebrate their 25th anniversary.
Third and lastly, the South China Sea remains not an ASEAN-China issue, but a bilateral one between Beijing and the four Southeast Asian claimant states and principally the Philippines, emphasizing the divisions between the organization between claimants, interested states, and laggards, rather than the lowest common denominator position they do share (See: “Does ASEAN Have a South China Sea Position?“).
Though China did succeed tactically in preventing an ASEAN joint statement from being publicly issued, it still failed to achieve all three of the points and shape the narrative as it had intended. Take the first objective – demonstrating China and individual Southeast Asian states are more than capable of handling their differences with respect to the South China Sea without outside interference. If anything, the Kunming meeting was the clearest illustration yet that ASEAN and China alone cannot manage this issue successfully as long as Beijing continues to deliberately undermine the regional grouping’s unity – thereby preventing it from even articulating its own position – while simultaneously castigating both individual Southeast Asian countries for then seeking other means to resolve their differences with China as well outside actors like the United States for demonstrating legitimate concern.
According to one Southeast Asian diplomat familiar with the events that transpired at Kunming, ASEAN had already agreed to issue a joint statement on its own following China’s rather heavy-handed attempt to pressure the regional grouping into adopting Beijing’s preferred stance on the South China Sea. That statement was to be along the lines of an earlier media note. But when it became clear to China that it had overplayed its hand and that ASEAN was going to issue an independent joint statement after the meeting instead of one with Beijing, China then attempted to mollify the grouping, urging it to adopt its boilerplate ten-point consensus.
Though most ASEAN states found this impossible to accept, a couple of countries – particularly Cambodia and Laos – began signalling their discomfort with the earlier joint statement, thereby undermining the consensus that previously existed and leading to the statement eventually not be issued. In short, instead of either reconciling differences with ASEAN or allowing the grouping to state its own position, China undermined ASEAN’s ability to even articulate its own stance.
“China’s win-lose approach makes diplomacy look unworkable and makes other options that it likes less look more reasonable,” the diplomat said, tweaking Beijing’s traditional rhetoric about a “win-win” approach in ASEAN-China relations. A separate diplomatic source from another Southeast Asian country confirmed this general play-by-play account and stressed that there was no “confusion” about what had occurred in Kunming to those present. “It was pretty clear what happened and why it happened,” he said.
The second objective – stressing that the South China Sea ought not to be blown out of proportion as it is just one issue in China’s otherwise highly successful dialogue partnership with ASEAN amid the 25th anniversary – was also not achieved. For starters, by partaking in the special meeting itself – which for most ASEAN states was primarily an effort to discuss the the South China Sea in spite of the broad ASEAN-China label – Beijing had already lost that battle to downplay the South China Sea issue.
But beyond that, if one reads the full statement initially agreed to by ASEAN states but not eventually issued, the document is quite a powerful message in and of itself. Essentially, it is divided into two halves – the first half deals generally with the state of the ASEAN-China relationship and the preparations being made for commemorating the 25th anniversary; which almost seems meant to just soften the blow of the second half, the entirety of which deals extensively and specifically with the South China Sea issue.
The second half of the statement does not just include references to broad principles like regional peace and stability or freedom of navigation and overflight or the perennial quest for a binding code of conduct, but deals specifically with how the South China Sea issue is negatively affecting ASEAN-China relations. The length of the second half of the statement, which runs multiple paragraphs long, and the directness of some of the language and terminology used, is nothing short of unprecedented for a formal ASEAN statement and is as close as one can get to a direct rebuke of China on the South China Sea question.
In one portion early on in the statement, ASEAN states clearly intended to note the centrality of the South China Sea issue within ASEAN-China relations despite Beijing’s attempt to downplay it.
“We look forward to working together with China to bring ASEAN-China cooperation to the next level. But we also cannot ignore what is happening in the South China Sea as it is an important issue in the relations and cooperation between ASEAN and China,” the statement reads
For comparison, concern on the South China Sea in ASEAN joint statements is traditionally limited to being buried in either one or at most a few short paragraphs, without direct reference to the frustration of many of ASEAN’s fiercest critics.True, this was a special ASEAN-China foreign ministers’ meeting rather than a regular ASEAN summit, and the South China Sea was the main topic of conversation in this case. But this is far from the toned-down approach that Beijing would have hoped for.
To be sure, it is important that the statement was released and then retracted, and it is clear that China and the Southeast Asian states responsible for this – most obviously Laos, the ASEAN chair – deserve to be held accountable for it. But the point here is that in spite of the expected resistance to the issuance of that statement from China and the traditional laggards, the majority of Southeast Asian states clearly reached enough agreement in a formal document to convey their concern to Beijing on the South China Sea issue to a level not seen previously. The occurrence of that event as well as its significance in undermining Beijing’s narrative needs to be appreciated.
The third and final point – emphasizing that the South China Sea remains not an ASEAN-China issue, but a bilateral one between Beijing and the four Southeast Asian claimant states and principally the Philippines – was not just undermined, but fundamentally contradicted in a very public way. Of course, this was most obviously demonstrated by the very convening of the meeting itself, which was an ASEAN-China meeting heavily focused on the South China Sea issue.
But the dynamics of how things played out also deserve mention. Accounts suggest that, as expected, Laos and Cambodia were the main laggards on this question in Kunming. But what ended up dominating the headlines was the reaction of not claimant states or these laggards, but countries classified as non-claimants, including interested parties like Singapore and Indonesia, thereby undermining Beijing’s attempts to downplay the dispute as only being between it and four individual countries.
Singapore, assuming an important role as ASEAN’s China country coordinator, was the clearest case in point. The city state, which called the meeting and was already miffed at Beijing’s attempts to divide ASEAN ahead of the upcoming PCA verdict even before this week, even publicly released its own press statement when no joint communique was issued – a clear signal of its discontent at the state of affairs as the coordinator. Mirroring the statement that was not issued, eight of thirteen lines of that Singapore statement focused on the concerns the ASEAN foreign ministers had conveyed to China on the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, Indonesia – Southeast Asia’s largest state, which has at times been frustratingly quiet on the South China Sea issue – also issued its own public statement, stating that peace and stability would be hard to achieve without respect for international law (See: “Indonesia’s South China Sea Policy: A Delicate Equilibrium“). As I have cautioned previously, it is unwise to read any one statement as constituting the definitive Indonesian position on the South China Sea, especially when even government officials publicly acknowledge that it has a policy coordination problem that it is still in need of being addressed (See: “Indonesia to Coordinate South China Sea Policy Ahead of Court Verdict“). But the point here is that the mere issuance of the statement – made, one diplomatic source told The Diplomat, amid pressure from Beijing for Jakarta not to speak out on the issue at all ahead of the upcoming verdict – is significant in its own right. The Philippines also released a statement with most of the language being almost identical to that of the statement.
Though none of the three aspects of China’s narrative really got any kind of traction at Kunming, that did not prevent Beijing from nonetheless declaring victory. At a June 15 press conference – where no less than six of the fifteen questions were devoted to the Kunming meeting – Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang parroted the Chinese narrative at the meeting that there was neither any joint statement nor any real fierce disagreement between ASEAN and China on the South China Sea question. But the clear repudiation of that narrative – made clear by the release of the initial joint statement by Malaysia, the distribution of individual statements by concerned states, and even the lack of a joint press conference – in many ways spoke for itself.
The headline at Kunming, thus, was not another Chinese division of ASEAN, but the effort by the majority of Southeast Asian states to both convey their concerns to an unprecedented degree and to push back against Beijing’s efforts to prevent them from doing so.