“Covering the Confusion: Southeast Asian Newspapers’ take on the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting”, a Commentary by Jason Salim

Commentary 2016/25, 22 June 2016

The Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting might have concluded a week ago, but its aftershocks continue to rattle ASEAN as it reassesses its strategy in handling the South China Sea (SCS) dispute. If ASEAN member states had any conflicting understanding of China’s growing assertiveness in bulldozing its national agenda on the region, the two-day meeting and the confusion surrounding the issuance and eventual retraction of the “media statement” almost certainly exacerbated those divides.

A look at some of the editorial pieces and reporting in Southeast Asian newspapers over the last week show some ASEAN member states more willing to publicly show signs of discord and assign blame for the “media statement” fiasco. Almost all the newspapers quoted sources which fingered Laos and Cambodia – two of China’s closest allies in ASEAN – as the reason behind the statement’s withdrawal even though all ten countries had decided to adopt the statement and release it at the conclusion of the meeting.

The Star (Malaysia) featured a column on 16 June that was particularly harsh to Laos given its role as the ASEAN chair this year, writing that “maybe Laos needs to ensure that the ASEAN tradition of issuing joint communiques is not broken again and send a signal to the world the ASEAN is united on the SCS”. The Bangkok Post took a different stance and published a column on 17 June that instead called on ASEAN as an institution to encourage the Philippines to backtrack its “outright antagonism” towards Beijing in order to entice China to agree to some sort of a rules-based arrangement even as it continues to press China on the SCS issue. The Phnom Penh Post’s first article on the entire event came only on 21 June – one week after the meeting’s last day – when it covered Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s strident attacks on countries that “(used) Cambodia to attack China”, adding that “they don’t dare blame Brunei.”

Different country perceptions of China’s role in scuttling ASEAN unity on the SCS issue are also evident. Unsurprisingly, news outlets from the Philippines – a claimant state in the SCS disputes – have been the most forthright in its criticism of China. The Editorial of The Philippine Daily Inquirer on 17 June argued that the events of the weeks “(brought) us yet more proof that China has successfully split ASEAN on the SCS issue, preventing it from offering a unified position.” The Philippine online news portal Rappler.com even used the word “bullying” to summarise Chinese actions during the meeting.

Singapore and Indonesia newspapers raised eyebrows by placing the blame on China for the breakdown of ASEAN consensus. The Straits Times used the headline “China ‘consensus’ statement left Asean divided” to refer to China’s proposed 10-point consensus statement that ASEAN “could not accept” on 16 June, whereas TODAY published an opinion piece that called China out for employing “Trojan horse” tactics on 17 June. Indonesia’s Kompas had a piece on 20 June which blamed China for rendering the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation meaningless, “as though it was torn into pieces”, and that “Indonesia must reject being dictated to by Beijing.” The Vietnam News Agency’s online news portal VietnamPlus went further and published the entire text of the withdrawn media statement on 16 June, tersely noting that “at the meeting, the ASEAN member states consented to the content of the Press Statement of their Foreign Ministers.”

In the lead-up to the much-anticipated release of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the Philippines’ claims, we can expect discordant voices within ASEAN. ASEAN might even experience a déjà vu moment come next month if Laos, as ASEAN Chair, chooses to follow Cambodia’s act in 2012 and also block the issuance of a joint communique. If this happens, does it mean that China has succeeded in driving that intractable wedge to render ASEAN moot as a platform for discussing matters of importance to regional peace and security – both of which have underpinned ASEAN’s economic growth for the past decades.

Jason Salim is Research Officer at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Assistant Production Editor of ASEANFocus

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.