“Reflections on the 49th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting”, a Commentary by Tang Siew Mun

Commentary 2016/36, 26 July 2016

Much to the surprise of the ASEAN member states, a joint communique of the 49th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) was issued on 25th July 2016, a day after the AMM. ASEAN watchers had been resigned to a déjà vu of the 2012 Phnom Penh meeting where ASEAN failed to issue the joint communique for the only time in its history. ASEAN has dodged a bullet in Vientiane, but did not come away unscathed.

The fact that two days of intense discussion and negotiation failed to produce a consensus document spells trouble for ASEAN as it continues to grapple with the delicate handling of the SCS disputes. Deep-seated divisions within ASEAN on the SCS disputes remain irreparable, with Cambodia holding firm to its position that the SCS is not an ASEAN issue. Unsurprisingly, Cambodia was blamed for blocking ASEAN just as it did in Phnom Penh in 2012. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, future AMMs will see the recurrent pattern of Cambodia sanitising direct or indirect linkages between the SCS and China.

The joint communique conspicuously left out any mention of the Arbitral Tribunal and its Award, which was undoubtedly the compromise that had to be made to obtain Cambodia’s acquiescence for including SCS into the communique. At the same time, the other ASEAN member states obtained the concession of including “land reclamations” into the document. The joint communique further “emphasised the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of all parties, including land reclamation that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea.” The Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) enter into the AMM’s foray for the first time and was offered as a deliverable for the ASEAN-China Commemorative Summit scheduled in September 2016.

Three immediate lessons and implications of the joint communique are discernible:

First, the successful issuance of the joint communique points to the important role of the ASEAN Chair. An impartial Chair with a sense of collective interest binds ASEAN together and helps it to counteract the forces that strive to pull it apart. In this respect, despite being boxed into the “Chinese camp”, Laos fulfilled its chairing responsibilities with high marks by keeping the discussion on the SCS alive, allowing for the diverging views to converge.

Second, the Vientiane joint communique will be used as the new baseline for future ASEAN documents. The eight paragraphs dedicated to the SCS is effectively the new lowest denominator. It even went a step further than the Sunnylands Summit Declaration by noting its concerns over land reclamations in the SCS.

The joint communique also sets a new precedent in elevating the SCS issue to the second paragraph of the document by referencing the “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without the use of force, in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”  Is this a symbolic gesture or a subtle move by ASEAN to show its support for the Arbitral Tribunal?

Third, China is off-limits in any reference to the SCS. Attempts to link China with the SCS will be swiftly torpedoed by parties friendly to Beijing. Unfortunately, this is the new reality that ASEAN has to live with. Vientiane has shown that China’s allies within ASEAN are willing to sacrifice the joint communique to prevent China’s good name from being sullied.

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.