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ASEAN Secretariat Rescinds China-ASEAN Joint Statement; By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0083/2016

Courtesy: Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, June 15 2016. 

The ‘special’ meeting of ASEAN and China foreign ministers in Yunnan yesterday (June 14th) appeared to be a real ‘special’ one, with a statement of ‘serious concerns’ over South China Sea developments by ASEAN’s foreign ministers retracted just some hours after its release.

Q1. How do you explain this confusion?

ANSWER: The ASEAN Secretariat issuyed the joint statement by ASEAN Foreign Ministers to its members. The Malaysian Foreign Ministry released this statement to Agence France-Presse (AFP). At the same time, the Singapore Foreign Ministry released a press statement summarising the key points in the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ joint statement. Subsequently the ASEAN Secretariat issued a recall of the statement and a spokesperson for Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry said that ‘urgent amendments’ were required. It appears that China reacted to the story released by AFP and this led to the ASEAN Secretariat’s decision to rescind the earlier release. A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry Lu Kang stated, ‘We checked with the ASEAN side, and the so-called statement reported by AFP is not an official ASEAN document.’

Q2. Can we say that the pro-China countries like Cambodia had prevailed in pressing for the ‘recal’ of the statement?

ANSWER: The text of the ASEAN joint statement released to AFP closely mirrors past statements by ASEAN Foreign Ministers to which Cambodia agreed. The current issue appears to have been ta China’s instigation.

Q3. And how can we explain the issuing of a separate statement by Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs, noting the ‘serious concerns expressed by ASEAN foreign ministers’?

ANSWER: The foreign ministries of both Singapore and Indonesia issued normal short press releases on the activities of their ministers. For several years now ASEAN foreign ministers have expressed ‘serious concern’ about ‘recent developments’ in the South China Sea.

Q4. Is the absence of Singapore’s foreign minister at the press conference a sign that the meeting didn’t go well?

 ANSWER: Singapore is the ASEAN country co-ordinator for dialogue relations with China. Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan was co-chair with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi of the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. As co-chair Minister Balakrishnan should have attended the joint press conference with Minister Wang. It has been reported that the special meeting ran over schedule and this delayed the joint press briefing by five hours and Balakrishnan had to cancel his appearance to make a return flight to Singapore.

Q5. Anyway, the joint statement of ASEAN Foreign Ministers on South China Sea has been released to the public. Is it stronger than usual against China?

ANSWER: The text of the ASEAN joint statement released by AFP mirrors past joint statements by ASEAN Foreign Ministers but it does not reflect the wording of past joint statements issued by ASEAN and China. China obviously objected to the wording of the joint statement issued by the ASEAN Secretariat that stated ‘recent and ongoing developments’ have ‘eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and which may have the potential to undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.’ The ASEAN statement also called for non-militarisation and self-restraint, including land reclamation, and supported ‘legal and diplomatic processes,’ a reference to the Philippines case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration. ASEAN statements on the South China Sea never mention China by name.

Q6. With what happened in Yunnan, do you think that ASEAN can have a united stand on the ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague?

ANSWER: ASEAN members are in the process of drafting a joint statement on the South China Sea in response to the forthcoming findings of the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal. On June 9th an Indonesian foreign ministry official stated, ‘The process to reach a common understanding on a possible statement is still ongoing.’ All ASEAN members are agreed that disputes should be settled peacefully in accord with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. ASEAN should certainly be able to issue a joint statement after the Arbitral Tribunal releases its finding but ASEAN consensus building is likely to dilute any sharp wording or reference to China.

[Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. Email: c.thayer@adfa.edu.au. All background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer)]

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