“Between the Norm and the Exception: The ASEAN Way with Joint Statements”, a Commentary by Moe Thuzar

Commentary 2016/26, 23 June 2016

ASEAN has recently been in the news, when a joint statement by ASEAN Foreign Ministers was retracted within hours of its issuance. The carefully crafted and negotiated statement on the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers Meeting by ASEAN reflected its collective concern on tensions over territorial claims in the South China Sea, and its adverse impact on ASEAN-China relations. Its retraction was attributed to weak links in ASEAN’s regional chain and was compared to the Phnom Penh failure in 2012 to achieve consensus on the same topic. Whether bureaucratic misstep or deviation from the norm, two main points in the timeline of events merit further consideration.

Issuance of the Joint Statement

A statement highlighting important collective positions is often publicly issued after a high-level ASEAN meeting.  Such statements are usually coordinated and issued by the ASEAN Chair on behalf of the 10 member regional organisation. The ASEAN Secretariat provides secretarial support in finalizing and publicly posting the document, upon the express agreement or instruction of the ASEAN member states.

In the present instance, reports indicate that Singapore, as ASEAN-China dialogue relations coordinator, was tasked with issuing the statement at the joint press conference which was aborted. These reports appear to be corroborated by an official statement from Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs which explained that the statement was intended as a “media guideline.” This point is now moot in light of the cancelled press conference.

Malaysia subsequently stepped into the controversy by unilaterally issuing the statement only to retract it hours later. It was unusual for Malaysia, a very seasoned ASEAN member and Chair, to issue a statement on behalf of ASEAN without an explicit mandate to do so. Seeking to provide some clarity, Malaysia issued an official statement noting that since the joint statement had the consensus of the ASEAN foreign ministers, the question of its issuance did not arise. This explanation raises more questions than answers. Why did Malaysia assume the responsibility of issuing the statement? What is the status of the document in light of Malaysia’s retraction, and announcement that “further amendments had to be made? What is the role of the ASEAN Chair in clarifying the matter?

Going by ASEAN’s procedure, it would have been more appropriate for Malaysia to issue the joint statement in its national capacity and not on ASEAN’s behalf, especially knowing that the consensus had collapsed. The “leak” – intentional or otherwise – can also be interpreted as an attempt by a frustrated ASEAN member state to overcome China’s attempt to muzzle ASEAN.

Joint Press Conference

After an ASEAN meeting, the Chair gives a press conference to share the highlights of the meeting with the media.  At times, and on topics of relevance, ASEAN delegations may also join the Chair. When ASEAN convenes a high-level meeting with a Dialogue Partner, a joint press conference is held, with the ASEAN and Dialogue Partner counterparts meeting the press jointly.  However, media reports cited sources stating that the meeting ran “a few hours past schedule”, compelling ASEAN ministers to give the scheduled joint press conference a miss in order to catch their return flights. The Chinese foreign minister, nevertheless, proceeded with the planned press conference. Though not entirely unusual, given the tight schedules of ASEAN ministers, it is nonetheless rather telling in this instance that Singapore’s Foreign Minister – in his capacity as co-chair of the meeting – did not participate in the press conference.
The lone appearance by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the cancelled joint press conference provided a very public display of divergence of views between ASEAN and China. More likely, rather than to disagree and embarrass the host, Singapore decided that the face saving “no-show” measure was more appropriate to preserve ASEAN-China ties. An explanation of ASEAN’s position, was extensively covered by The Straits Times and other international media a day after the meeting. In doing so, Singapore avoided a public meltdown of a very tense meeting while affirming ASEAN’s position and credibility.

China’s mercurial Foreign Minister Wang Yi who had hosted this meeting to showcase that everything was “hunky dory” with ASEAN must have been deeply disappointed with the wave of events, which was precipitated by its demand that ASEAN accept its 10 Point Consensus Statement.

Moe Thuzar is Fellow and Lead Researcher at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  She has 10 years of service at the ASEAN Secretariat.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.