Despite initial media accounts of the just concluded ASEAN-China Special Foreign Ministers Meeting in Yuxi, China, there still remains some confusion around some of the meeting’s key developments. Yet in talking to several Southeast Asian diplomats either present at the meeting or familiar with the developments that took place there, the picture becomes rather clear as I emphasized in a previous piece (See: “China, Not ASEAN the Real Failure on South China Sea at Kunming Meeting“). Based on preliminary conversations with these sources, this piece attempts to clarify what we know about the lead-up to, the conduct of, and the conclusion of the meeting.
The Genesis of the ASEAN-China Special Meeting
The idea of an ASEAN-China Special Foreign Ministers Meeting has been months in the making, with Malaysia’s foreign minister Anifah Aman raising the idea with China at the ASEAN foreign ministers’ retreat in Laos in February. While the meeting was designed to address issues within the broader ASEAN-China relationship as the two sides commemorate the 25th anniversary of the establishment of their dialogue partnership, The Diplomat understands that the central matter of concern in the genesis of this meeting was the South China Sea.
More specifically, with the upcoming verdict by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the Philippines’ South China Sea case against China, a number of Southeast Asian states, including Singapore, the ASEAN-China coordinator, felt that it was important for ASEAN to jointly discuss how it was going to approach the South China Sea issue both internally and with Beijing. Achieving unity on the South China Sea is difficult for ASEAN: the organization operates on the basis of consensus and only four of the ten members have claims in the disputes (Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam), with others being interested parties (like Singapore and Indonesia) and, in the case of Cambodia and Laos, not-so-interested parties or ‘laggards’ (See: “Does ASEAN Have a South China Sea Position?“).
With Laos – a landlocked Southeast Asian state with little interest in the South China Sea and a lot invested in its relationship with China – there were also concerns that there could be a repeat of what happened at the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh in 2012, where Cambodia, then the ASEAN chair, had blocked issuance of a joint communique over mention of the South China Sea issue following pressure from China (See: “ASEAN’s Soul-Searching After Phnom Penh“).
However, the specifics of the meeting – including its timing and format – were contested before it was finally held in Yuxi. Along the way, there were already clear demonstrations of Beijing’s desire to test and undermine ASEAN’s unity, including state media reports of a four-point consensus in April between China, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei – reports that were subsequently denied by each of these Southeast Asian countries individually.
What Really Happened at the Meeting
During the meeting, co-chaired by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, it became clear to several of the Southeast Asian countries present that China was making a heavy-handed attempt to pressure ASEAN to adopt Beijing’s preferred stance on the South China Sea. According to one participant at the meeting, during the deliberations, Beijing not only warned Southeast Asian states against issuing a statement on the South China Sea following the verdict, but challenged the much-prized notion of ASEAN centrality, leading to anger among some the room. “Frustration is putting it politely,” the diplomat said when asked to describe the reaction of a number of ASEAN states to China’s tone during this part of the meeting.
Miffed at China’s conduct, ASEAN ministers initially decided to issue their own statement instead of one together with Beijing at a joint meeting – an unprecedented move in the history of the regional grouping. Three separate diplomatic sources from three different ASEAN countries confirmed to this author that there was initial agreement by ASEAN countries to turn a media statement, which had been in the works for months, into a joint statement to be issued for the special meeting. Importantly, they added that there was no confusion on this point.
As I detailed in an earlier piece, it is important to acknowledge not just the existence of the statement, but its content in order to get a sense of how far-reaching it really was. Half of the statement was dedicated to the South China Sea issue, with strong language in some parts. At one point early on, the statement notes sternly:
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.
Such language 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.
But upon hearing about the plan to issue such a statement, China tried to mollify ASEAN and convince it not to do so. Beijing was clearly of the mind that Southeast Asian states should either sign on to China’s statement – in the form of a ten-point consensus that one Southeast Asian diplomatic source described as “unacceptable by any standard” – or that it should issue nothing at all. While most ASEAN states continued to insist that the regional grouping continue on its current course, Chinese unhappiness with the grouping did lead a couple of states to reconsider signing on to the joint statement, including Cambodia and – crucially – Laos, the ASEAN chair. With the prospect of ASEAN states backing out, it then became clear that there was a lack of consensus for the grouping to issue a statement.
Ultimately, ASEAN did not issue any joint statement at all despite what had been initially intended and agreed. The summit ended without agreement, as evidenced by the lack of a joint press conference between the two co-chairs of the meeting.
Some media sources and analysts have fixated on details that remain marginal to this clear account of what occurred, but nonetheless muddy the narrative being shaped to the extent that they need to be clarified. First, there has been some discussion about the kind of statement that was being formulated at this summit and whether or not this has something to do with what was issued or not issued. Much of this has been sparked by Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir’s comment that the statement was a media note that was not to be released, unlike a regular joint statement that should have been.
While Nasir is factually right to point out that the original document being considered by ASEAN states at the meeting was a media note that had long been in the works and ought not to have been released, he neglected to mention that there was also initial consensus among ASEAN states to turn that original media note into a joint statement as was mentioned earlier. In other words, irrespective of what kind of document ASEAN began with, what matters is there was consensus on where the grouping wanted to end up: a joint statement based off of that to be released publicly. Therefore, there is no question about whether a joint statement was ever meant to be issued at the summit or whether there was initial consensus among ASEAN countries about whether a joint statement ought to be issued. The only relevant question is why that initial consensus broke down.
Second, much has been made about Malaysia’s release of the media statement, which then had to be subsequently retracted following “urgent amendments.” Some commentators on the summit have said this suggests confusion and perhaps even bureaucratic incompetence within ASEAN about the degree of consensus that existed and how it was publicized.
In reality, this is at best a sideshow when trying to discern what accounted for the non-issuance of the statement. True, questions can be asked about Malaysia’s intentions – or lack thereof – in releasing the statement and the wisdom of doing so. But that does not detract from the fact that there was initially unity across ASEAN to turn that media statement into a joint statement, or that this consensus ultimately was not realized due to Chinese pressure and demurral from laggard states within ASEAN, which ultimately led to this course not being pursued. This point was further reinforced by accounts from diplomats following the meeting as well as separate statements issued by several countries — some even containing parts of the original statement itself.
In other words, this is a story of how an organization’s initial internal unity was challenged by an external force, rather than one of a grouping that was unclear or divided on procedures or protocols. Malaysia’s independent release of the document and its reasons for doing so do not detract from that one bit.
The Road Ahead
As I indicated in a previous piece, from what we know so far, the headline of the ASEAN-China Special Foreign Ministers’ Meeting clearly ought to be how ASEAN is showing clear signs of pushing back against China in the face of Beijing’s continued attempts to divide it. But despite clarity on what occurred in the lead up to and at the meeting itself, the road ahead for ASEAN, China, and the South China Sea is still unclear.
The immediate question, of course, is whether a joint statement will be issued at all as originally planned after amendments by parties who have concerns. When a statement was not issued in Phnom Penh in 2012, then Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa conducted a round of intense shuttle diplomacy to ASEAN capitals to salvage a five-point consensus on the South China Sea. As of the time of this writing, the issuing of some kind of statement looks increasingly unlikely, especially given the highly politicized nature of the fallout that has since occurred.
Further along, the issue is how ASEAN will handle this issue for the remainder of the year. As ASEAN chair, Laos will host a foreign ministers’ meeting in July and a leaders’ summit in September, and Vientiane’s role will be critical in forging consensus especially with the upcoming PCA verdict (See: “Does the Philippines’ South China Sea Case Against China Really Matter?“). Observers will be watching whether Laos will use laggards like Cambodia as an excuse to dilute or damage ASEAN consensus on the South China Sea issue for its own interests or whether it will try to genuinely steer the regional grouping to take a strong position on a critical issue. And while some actors may try to obscure what actually happens at these engagements, eventually the truth will come out as it has with the Kunming meeting.