Silence over Asean’s bungled statement

The South China Sea’s overlapping claims. Source: Wikimedia

Confusion still surrounds the retracted Malaysian statement at the end of the Kunming summit of Asean foreign ministers and the Chinese over the South China Sea dispute.

Kuala Lumpur quickly retracted a strongly worded joint statement expressing “serious concerns” over Chinese actions in the sea. It raised concerns about the bloc’s unity, which has been tested for years on the subject.

Asean operates on consensus, meaning all 10 members must agree over a statement before its release.

Beijing says its overlapping claims with Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia have nothing to do with its relationship with Asean.

The withdrawn statement said: “[We] cannot ignore what is happening in the South China Sea as it is an important issue in the relations and cooperation between Asean and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.”

Asean had previously avoided mentioning China by name.

It was “a direct rebuke to China’s position that the dispute is not a matter between Asean and China”, explained Ian Storey of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. Beijing insists that the disputes should be handled bilaterally.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand said Laos had “assured many stakeholders we wouldn’t see a repeat of 2012”, referring to when a Cambodian-based Asean summit ended in confusion after the hosts vetoed a statement on the sea.

Thitinan added that the South China Sea dispute “in the last four years has intensified to the point it has to be mentioned in any joint statement”.

The contentious statement reflected frustration with Chinese efforts to pressurise some Asean members, according to a regional diplomatic source.

It was withdrawn after China lobbied Laos, which holds the rotating Asean chair, according to the anonymous source.

Vientiane, as would be expected from the secretive state, refused to comment. China’s trade with Laos increased nearly 20 times to US$2.7 billion in the 10 years to last year. China is Asean’s largest trading partner.

China’s foreign ministry tried to downplay the controversy. “This is a closed-door meeting,” spokesman Lu Kang said in Beijing. “It is not meant to issue an official statement.”

The Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times ran an editorial this week with the headline: “Asean slapped China in the face over South China Sea? Western media’s crazy thoughts.”

The UN’s Hague tribunal has been asked by the Philippines to rule on the status of features China contests and the legal basis of its “historic rights” claim, based on old maps. No further Asean statement appears likely until the ruling is made.