The ASEAN-China Special Meeting Mystery: Bureaucratic Snafu or Chinese Heavy-Handedness?


On June 14, China hosted a special meeting of foreign ministers (or their representatives) from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Kunming, in Yunnan province in southern China. At the conclusion of this meeting it was reported that ASEAN had issued and then retracted a strongly worded joint statement critical of China’s actions in the South China Sea. Just what happened is still unclear and has led to unsupported speculation in the media and by commentators.

Did ASEAN foreign ministers draft and issue a joint statement following the special meeting of foreign ministers or not? Some context and background is necessary.

In recent memory ASEAN and China have always issued one joint statement after meetings of their leaders and foreign ministers. In recent years this joint statement has invariably included a reference to the South China Sea that is diplomatically crafted and general so as to be acceptable to all parties.

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According to an official Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson the special meeting was a “closed meeting,” and prior to the meeting it was agreed that no joint statement would be issued. At the most recent ASEAN-China summit in November 2015, for example, it was the ASEAN Chair that issued a statement on behalf of all members. This 18-paragraph statement included three short paragraphs on the South China Sea.

When ASEAN foreign ministers meet they invariably issue a statement through the ASEAN Chair. If ASEAN in fact drew up its own separate statement for release after the special meeting with China it would have broken long-standing precedent; further it would have been unfathomable unless some serious rift had taken place.

In the case at hand, the media reported that the ASEAN Secretariat cleared a document that Malaysia released to Agence France Press (AFP). This document was rescinded within three hours. A Malaysian official said it needed “urgent amendments.”

Subsequently individual ASEAN foreign ministries issued brief statements on the special meeting. None make reference to an official ASEAN joint statement. In fact the document in question has been referred to as a “media statement” by Malaysian officials and as a “media guideline” by Indonesian officials.

This confusion over the status of this document has not yet been clarified by the ASEAN Secretary General or by the ASEAN Secretariat, giving the impression that ASEAN is in disarray and caved in to Chinese pressure

Some background is needed to set the context for the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers meeting. Malaysia’s Foreign Minister YB Dato’ Sri Anifah Hajii Aman first raised the idea of a special meeting with China at the ASEAN foreign ministers retreat in Laos in February to discuss four topics: the development of ASEAN-China dialogue relations, the future direction of the ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership, preparations for the 25th  anniversary of ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations, and, importantly, the South China Sea.

ASEAN and China held their 12th Senior Officials Meeting (SOM) in Quang Ninh, Vietnam on June 9. This meeting was co-chaired by Singapore and China. Senior officials reviewed the implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and progress on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC). ASEAN officials expressed their concern over recent developments in the South China Sea and stressed the importance of fully implementing Article 4 (peaceful settlement of disputes), Article 5 (self-restraint), Article 6 (cooperation), and Article 10 (adopting a COC) of the DOC.

The ASEAN-China SOM, according to Vietnamese media reports, also “discussed the nature of the COC as well as approaches to designing it for the first time.” The officials agreed to draft guidelines for a hotline to respond to urgent incidents at sea and complete the wording of the ASEAN-China Joint Statement on the Implementation of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea. Finally, the SOM discussed preparations for the forthcoming special meeting of their foreign ministers.

The media also reported at this time that ASEAN was drawing up a joint statement on the South China Sea to be issued following the findings of the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal on the case brought by the Philippines. An Indonesian foreign ministry official was asked if the draft joint statement would be discussed at the special meeting in Kunming. He replied that consensus had not yet been reached at this point (June 10) and “the process to reach a common understanding on a possible statement is still ongoing.”

The Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers Meeting discussed preparations for the 25th anniversary commemorative summit with China, other ASEAN-China related issues, and the South China Sea. The South China Sea discussions were candid, according to a media statement released by the Philippines.

Originally the co-chairs of the special meeting, China’s Wang Yi, the host, and Singapore’s Vivian Balakrishnan, the ASEAN country coordinator for China, were to have addressed a press conference. However the special meeting went over schedule by five hours and reportedly Balakrishnan and other ASEAN minsters had to leave to catch their scheduled flights back to their home countries. It was left to Foreign Minster Wang of China to brief the press.

Until ASEAN clarifies this situation, it would appear that the ASEAN bureaucracy malfunctioned. Indonesian foreign ministry sources stated that the “initial statement was a “media guideline” which had been prepared for a planned press conference for the conclusion of the meeting.” Because the meeting ran over schedule, the press conference was cancelled as a number of ASEAN foreign ministers left Kunming.

It was in this confused context that the ASEAN Secretariat released a document that Malaysia passed on to AFP. When it was published, Chinese foreign ministry officials sought clarification from Laos as ASEAN Chair. Then within less than three hours after its release the ASEAN “media statement” was rescinded. Chinese officials then claimed that the document in question was not an official ASEAN statement.

The text of the statement published by AFP contained four paragraphs that slightly stiffened ASEAN’s declaratory policy on the South China Sea. For example, in the first paragraph published by AFP the ASEAN foreign ministers were quoted as stating “We expressed our serious concerns over recent and ongoing developments, which have eroded trust and confidence, (and) increased tensions…”

This statement may be compared to the most recent articulation of ASEAN’s foreign ministers issued after their annual retreat in Vientiane in February. According to point 12 of the press statement issued by Laos, the ASEAN Chair, “the Ministers remained seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments and took note of the concerns expressed by some Ministers… which have eroded trust and confidence, (and) increased tensions (emphasis added).” The AFP draft implied that consensus had now been reached by all ministers.

The second paragraph published by AFP “emphasized the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation…” In the ASEAN Chair’s press statement, point 14 mentioned self-restraint, but did not specifically mention militarization. The AFP draft points to a higher consensus within ASEAN on being more specific about its concerns.

The third paragraph quoted by AFP was general in nature and not markedly different from previous ASEAN statements. The fourth paragraph quoted by AFP made reference to “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes,” a veiled reference to the arbitration case brought by the Philippines against China. This did not differ from point 15 in the ASEAN Chair’s press statement that called for the “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes.”

Other media reports added a sentence that claimed the ASEAN “communique” stated, “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.” If accurate, this statement broke new ground and directly challenged China’s assertion that the South China Sea was a bilateral dispute between claimant states and China.

After the special meeting at least four ASEAN foreign ministries – Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam  – issued separate statements before the recall by the ASEAN Secretariat. The media statement issued by the Philippines provides the most detailed and authoritative account in the public domain at this time. On the South China Sea, ASEAN ministers:

  • Expressed their 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;
  • 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);
  • Emphasized the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would further complicate the situation or escalate tensions, and pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law;
  • Articulated their commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including the UNCLOS and the UN Charter;
  • Emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation, which may raise tensions in the South China Sea;
  • Reiterated their firm commitment to the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in its entirety, and while noting the momentum and new phase of consultations, urged the early adoption of an effective Code of Conduct;
  • Pursuant to the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in its entirety, and pending the early adoption of an effective Code of Conduct, stressed the importance of undertaking confidence building and preventive measures that would enhance, among others, trust and confidence amongst parties.

Until ASEAN – through its Secretary General or country coordinator for dialogue relations with China – clarifies this situation, speculation will continue that this episode is a re-run of the situation in 2012 when Cambodia, acting as ASEAN Chair, singlehandedly scuttled the customary ASEAN joint statement following the annual meeting of its foreign ministers.

The draft text issued by AFP indicates a consensus on a slight ratcheting up of diplomatic pressure on China. Speculation that Cambodia caved in and scuttled ASEAN consensus may be premature. ASEAN diplomats have confided to The Diplomat that Cambodia is more flexible and accommodating these days on South China Sea issues since Prak Sakhonn replaced Hor Namhong as foreign minister. Cambodia also is one of the few countries to deny China’s claim of support for Beijing’s position on the South China Sea.

On the basis of information presently available in the public domain it appears that a bureaucratic snafu within the bureaucracy of the ASEAN Secretariat is the most plausible explanation for the events following the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers Meeting.

While it is clear that there are differences between ASEAN and China, no new rift has emerged that would justify ASEAN abandoning long-standing precedent in its relations with Beijing by issuing a critical stand-alone joint statement on the South China Sea while guests of China. Such action would undermine the commemorative summit planned for August to mark a half century of dialogue relations.

Since its inception ASEAN has supported international law and the peaceful settlement of disputes. ASEAN’s character will be tested when the findings of the Arbitral Tribunal come down. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China ratified, these finding must be implemented immediately and are not subject to appeal.

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