“Fallout from the ASEAN-China Special Foreign Ministers’ Meeting”, by Tang Siew Mun

Commentary 2016/22, 16 June 2016

The fault lines between ASEAN and China was exposed in the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Kunming which drew to an “eventful” conclusion yesterday. Even before the meeting started, ominous signs were looming as stakeholders started asking questions over the rationale for the meeting. Some quarters in ASEAN were uneasy over the possibility that China will use the meeting to paper over heightened concerns and anxieties in the South China Sea (SCS). Nevertheless, the Malaysian proposed meeting was convened in Kunming on 14 June 2016.

The post-meeting developments were instructive in the following points:

    1. ASEAN and China cancelled a scheduled joint press conference customarily used to report on the meeting’s deliberations once it concluded. The two parties also did not issue a joint statement to mark the Special Meeting. These two anomalies suggest a divergence of opinions between ASEAN and China.
    1. The official takeaways from China and Singapore – which co-chaired the meeting in the capacity of Coordinator of ASEAN’s relations with China – were markedly different. The statement released on the meeting by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs focused exclusively on matters pertaining to the ASEAN-China Commemorative Summit. South China Sea did not get a single mention. On the other hand, the press statement issued from Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was more comprehensive which covered preparations for the Commemorative Summit as well as extensive discussion on the SCS.
    1. The ASEAN Foreign Ministers were said to have issued a “Media Statement” on the meeting, only for the statement to be retracted by a Malaysian Foreign Ministry official. The statement of retraction read, “We have to retract the media statement by the ASEAN foreign ministers … as there were urgent amendments to be made.”  The spokesperson also indicated that the ASEAN Secretariat had approved the release of the statement, and later informed the Malaysian Foreign Ministry of the decision to rescind the statement.

      This chain of events raises a number of puzzling questions which goes against established ASEAN conventions. First, why did the ASEAN Secretariat release the statement on behalf of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers when it is not authorised to do so since this responsibility falls on the ASEAN Chair? Second, why was the retraction issued by the Malaysian MFA and not by the ASEAN Secretariat? This leads to a larger question of Malaysia’s unusually active role in this debacle.

    1.  The retraction has obviously created some confusion.  It is notable that the ASEAN Chair – Laos – has not stepped up to clear the air but has elected to remain quiet.  It is times like these that ASEAN looks longingly to the Chair for leadership only to be met with disappointment.
The retraction of the media statement will be the main discussion point in the coming days, but the larger and more important takeaways from the debacle is ASEAN’s growing openness and frankness to discussing their anxieties on escalating tensions in the SCS. The rescinded media statement is also a signal of ASEAN’s growing frustration at China’s attempt to stymie discussion on the SCS and to erroneously paint the ASEAN-China relations as impeccable when the truth is less favourable.

Rather than chalking up the Kunming debacle as a mark of ASEAN’s disunity, and thus failure, China should view it as a wake-up call to not underestimate ASEAN and take it for granted.  Both sides have to ask each other if the friendship forged over the past 25 years have led them to privilege form and diplomatic niceties over substance and sincere discussions.

Dr Tang Siew Mun is Head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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.