“Issues and Points to Look out for at the 49th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting and Related Meetings”, a Commentary by Tang Siew Mun

Commentary 2016/33, 22 July 2016

ASEAN foreign ministers will meet in Vientiane from 23-26 July 2016 for the 49th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting (AMM), as well as to participate in other related meetings such as the Post-Ministerial Conference (PMC) with the Dialogue Partners, East Asia Summit (EAS) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

ASEAN meetings are known to be highly predictable affairs. However, the Vientiane meetings may deviate from the norm and spring a few surprises.  Among the hot issues to look out for and notable points related to the meetings are:

    1. The South China Sea (SCS) is expected to dominate the AMM and related meetings. To date, only seven ASEAN member states have issued a statement or press release on the Arbitral Tribunal award. The reference to the award ranges from “noted” to “welcome” and “study,” and two statements (Thailand and Indonesia) did not even mention the award at all. Brunei, Cambodia and Laos have not formally disclosed their official positions after the award was released on 12 July 2016.  Does this mean we will not see a unified position on the SCS given the diverse range of positions (and non-position) on the Arbitral Tribunal award? Can ASEAN avoid directly addressing the issue?
    1. In the wake of the acrimonious Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers Meeting in Kunming on 14 June 2016 where ASEAN failed to issue a prepared joint statement due to China’s intense lobbying on the SCS, can ASEAN hold together to produce a Joint Communiqué that would include a credible common response to the Arbitral Tribunal award? Will China lean on its ASEAN allies to produce a deadlock as what happened during the 44th AMM at Phnom Penh in 2012? Will ASEAN unity be tested again?
    1. The Post-Ministerial Conference will be the first occasion for the ten ASEAN foreign ministers to meet their Chinese counterpart after the Arbitral Tribunal handed down its award in the Philippines v. China case on the South China Sea. The Philippines had set the tone of the meeting by not overplaying the award, which overwhelmingly favoured Manila. Until two days ago, this very ASEAN virtue of not “flaunting victories” had enabled ASEAN member states to follow Manila’s measured approach. However, the recent breakdown of the proposed direct talks between Beijing and Manila may change the tone of the ASEAN-China meeting, with both sides entrenching their positions and ASEAN caught in the middle. Can ASEAN and China move pass the SCS disputes, taking into consideration the existing breadth and depth of the bilateral relations?
    1. The war of words between China and the US is expected to continue in Vientiane at the ASEAN Regional Forum. Washington’s calls for China to respect and accept the Arbitral Tribunal’s award will be firmly rebuffed by Beijing, setting the stage for yet another vitriolic display of major power politics. Washington’s position is expected to be echoed by Australia, Japan and the European Union, which will put additional pressure for ASEAN member states to clarify their positions on China’s obligations on the award.
    1. The four-day meeting will be a baptism of fire for six foreign ministers (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) who will take part in the AMM and related meetings for the first time. ASEAN will rely on the experience of the Foreign Ministers of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, who themselves have an average of six years of direct ASEAN experience. Amongst the four, Brunei’s Second Foreign Minister, Lim Jock Seng is regarded as an old hand with more than 11 years of ASEAN experience under his belt. More importantly, ASEAN’s point person, Laos Minister of Foreign Affairs Saleumxay Kommasith has only been in office as recent as April this year. How would experience factor into ASEAN’s ability to forge common position on divisive issues such as the South China Sea? Will the lack of familiarity among the foreign ministers affect ASEAN collegiality and cohesion?
These factors combine to make for an interesting ASEAN affair in the coming days, but the ramifications of the meetings will have a longer and more enduring impact on the region’s strategic landscape beyond that.

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.