Over the last two days, ASEAN reportedly released a strongly worded statement showing unity against China over the South China Sea. Within hours, the statement had been retracted, with some Southeast Asian countries declaring it had been issued in error.
So what really happened?
On June 14th, Foreign Ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in Kunming with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to discuss bilateral relations. The meeting lasted several hours and the announced joint press conference between co-chairs Wang Yi and Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan ended up featuring the Chinese official alone. Wang acknowledged that “China and the Philippines have their differences,” implying that the South China issue had been discussed at the meeting, but insisted that “this was not a problem between China and ASEAN.”
“China and ASEAN’s cooperation far exceeds their differences, including the South China Sea issue,” he concluded.
Later that day, Malaysia’s government distributed to the press an alleged ASEAN joint statement that expressed “deep concerns over events in the South China Sea,” warning it had the potential to “undermine peace” in the region. The communiqué was described as citing Beijing directly, stating: “we also cannot ignore what is happening in the South China Sea as it is an important issue in the relations and cooperation between ASEAN and China.”
Picked up by global media, the statement was reported as ASEAN’s official statement and highlighted for its stern language. In actuality, it had not been released officially by the association, but was likely about to be. The statement’s wording was in line with previous ASEAN declarations at the Sunnylands and Sochi ASEAN summits on the South China Sea.
That’s when things got messy.
The first official press statement on the Kunming meeting was issued on the evening of the 14th by Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It described ASEAN’s foreign ministers as having “highlighted the need to intensify efforts…in the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and substantive development of the Code of Conduct” and referred to Balakrishnan as having noted “the serious concerns expressed by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers and called on ASEAN and China to continue working together to maintain the peace and stability of the South China Sea.”
Simultaneously, a spokeswoman for the Malaysian Foreign Ministry retracted the ASEAN communiqué it had circulated claiming “urgent amendments were needed.” By that time, no statement had been issued by ASEAN.
The fact that Singapore’s release came around at the same time as the retraction, combined with Balakrishnan’s absence at the press conference (which was downplayed by Wang), would hint at a clear discontent on the part of the city-state towards China’s actions at the talks, given its usual emphasis on putting up a united ASEAN front.
Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs then declared the next day that “the statement had been issued in error” by Malaysia, claiming it was merely a “ media guideline” for ASEAN ministers to refer to at a post-meeting press conference and not an agreed final statement.
Vietnam’s press release, also released on the 15th, made no reference to the divulged ASEAN statement but hemmed closest to its wording, expressing “concerns over increased military build-up in the East Vietnam Sea… especially the militarisation of the artificial islands and actions of sovereignty claims that are not based on international law.”
A spokesperson for Beijing told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that “they had checked with the ASEAN side, and the so-called statement reported by AFP is not an official ASEAN document,” while Chinese state media dismissed it as an invention of the Western press and denied any disagreements altogether. Hardliner Chinese newspaper The Global Times even ran an editorial titled “Asean slapped China in the face over South China Sea? Western media’s crazy thoughts.”
Nevertheless, releasing a communiqué before it is approved and deliberated by all ASEAN members would be a strange and unexpected violation of diplomatic protocol by Kuala Lumpur, given the association’s consensus-based approach. The widespread assumption among analysts is that China pressured ASEAN’s ministers to withdraw the statement before the bloc officially released it.
Malaysia’s stance on the South China Sea had already been in question in the last months over China’s General Nuclear Assets $2.3 billion acquisition of Malaysian scandal-hit 1MDB state investment firm’s power assets and the government’s gradual downplaying of maritime tensions.
Presumably, Beijing saw the leaked statement as a rebuke to its position that the South China Sea dispute is not a matter between ASEAN and China.
In addition, the Kunming meeting was held ahead of a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on a case brought by the Philippines that contests China’s claims in the South China Sea. The Chinese government, which refuses to recognise the suit, arguing that all disputes should be settled bilaterally, was likely angered by the statement’s call for compliance with international law: despite it being a previous ASEAN demand. The communiqué had included no actual endorsement of the arbitral tribunal’s jurisdiction. Such a dissenting statement being issued following a meeting on Chinese grounds would also have been seen as offensive by Beijing.
An anonymous Southeast Asian diplomat with knowledge of the talks told Bloomberg that “while the ministers initially agreed to the communiqué, it was withdrawn after China lobbied Laos,” the 2016 ASEAN Chair.
Laos’s government, which almost never speaks to foreign media, has not issued a statement. China dominates foreign direct investment in Laos. Moreover, along with Cambodia and Brunei, the four countries had released a four-point consensus in late April declaring that “the territorial disputes over the South China Sea are not an issue between China and ASEAN as a whole” and thus “should not affect the development of China-ASEAN relations”.
It should be noted that Vientiane’s long-term ally is Vietnam, of which the recently elected president, Trần Đại Quang, chose to make his official overseas visit to Vientiane, where he met with Lao party leader and President Bounnhang Vorachith at the same time as the Kunming talks.
Regardless, if this source is accurate, it would hurt Laos’s regional credibility greatly and bring back negative echoes of Cambodia’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2012. That year, at a summit of ASEAN’s foreign ministers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia has resisted the use of strong language critical of China’s actions in the South China Sea. Tempers had grown so heated that the ten member nations had been unable to agree on a joint communiqué: a first in its history. According to sources in ASEAN, Laos had promised to avoid a repeat of 2012.
More realistically though, China would have attempted to influence all ASEAN nations upon which it had any leverage.
As of this writing, no official statement has been released by ASEAN. Given that the leaked draft was so similar to previous ASEAN statements on the South China Sea, this lack of consensus appears to be a worrying sign that unity seems a lesser reality than ever for the bloc. Yet, it is not really a victory for the Chinese government either, as its careful attempts to cultivate a narrative of friendly cooperation with ASEAN to prove once and for all that the South China Sea is not a regional issue have been obliterated by the controversy.