Asean retracts bold statement against China | Global News

Asean retracts bold statement against China

01:00 AM June 16, 2016

JAKARTA—Indonesia on Wednesday said a bold statement from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) raising concern over China’s island-building in the South China Sea was issued in error, as a meeting over the issue ended in confusion.

In a statement released late Tuesday by Malaysia’s foreign ministry, Asean warned that recent actions in the disputed South China Sea had “the potential to undermine peace.”

“We expressed our serious concerns over recent and ongoing developments, which 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 original statement said, without mentioning China by name.


“We emphasized the importance of nonmilitarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation, which may raise tensions in the South China Sea,” it said.


“We articulated Asean’s commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability in the region, as well as to the peaceful resolution of disputes,” the statement said.

This includes “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the Unclos (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) and the UN Charter,” it said.

 ‘Candid exchange’

The statement described “a candid exchange”—language that hinted at a diplomatic confrontation—between the bloc’s foreign ministers and their Chinese counterpart at a meeting in Kunming, China.

But just hours later a Malaysian foreign ministry spokesperson said the Asean secretariat had retracted the statement headlined “Media statement by the Asean foreign ministers,” pending “urgent amendments.”

The text released by Malaysia was merely a “media guideline” for Asean ministers to refer to at a postmeeting press conference, and not an agreed final statement, Indonesian foreign ministry spokesperson Arrmanatha Nasir told Agence France-Presse (AFP).



Various theories

Analysts gave various theories, with one saying Asean had backtracked after coming under pressure from China, while another said Malaysia appeared to have released the statement prematurely by mistake.

Either way, the disarray was another example of Asean’s perennial inability to present a united front toward China, which observers say has allowed Beijing to expand its sway over much of the South China Sea despite overlapping claims.

Two Asean members—the Philippines and Vietnam—have come into direct confrontation with China over territorial disputes, while nonclaimants such as Laos, Cambodia and Burma (Myanmar) have maintained closer ties with Beijing.

Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei, meanwhile, have generally walked a delicate line somewhere in the middle.

Nasir said the meeting of Southeast Asian foreign ministers and China had run over schedule, meaning that “the press conference was canceled and a number of Asean foreign ministers had to leave immediately.

“The Asean foreign ministers did not have a chance to discuss how they would release the content of the media guideline to the media.”


No statement issued

Malaysian officials could not be reached for comment, but the Asean secretariat in Jakarta said no official statement was issued after the meeting.

Asked whether China had objected to the statement, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Lu Kang, did not answer directly, but said Beijing had been assured that it was not an official Asean document and had been retracted.

“If Asean wants to officially issue something that represents its stance, it should be agreed upon by all Asean members,” Lu told reporters, implying a lack of consensus within the grouping.

Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asian politics analyst currently at Turkey’s Ipek University, said the affair seemed to stem from a Malaysian misstep.

She said Asean countries, several of which were highly dependent on smooth trade relations with China, had been wary of commenting on the South China Sea issue ahead of a UN tribunal’s imminent ruling in a case brought by the Philippines against China.

China does not recognize the arbitration and has reacted angrily to Manila’s pursuit of legal action over Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), which China seized after a two-month standoff with the Philippine Navy in 2012.

“I think they (Asean) want to wait until the arbitration decision comes out before making any sort of clear joint statement as a group,” Welsh said.

China objections

But Southeast Asia expert Carl Thayer said China appeared to have reacted to reports about the statement.

“China obviously objected to the wording of the joint statement,” said Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “This led to the Asean secretariat’s decision to rescind the earlier release.”

China claims nearly all of the strategic South China Sea and has bolstered its claim by building artificial islands, some topped with airstrips that are suitable for military use, in the Spratly archipelago.

In 2012, an annual meeting of Asean foreign ministers ended in chaos and unprecedented rancor, with the Philippines accusing hosts Cambodia of blocking a strong statement accusing China of raising tensions in the region.

The gathering ended with no joint ministers’ communiqué for the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history.

In recent years, however, Asean has hardened its language amid the Chinese island-building, while taking pains not to mention China by name.

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Asean operates on a policy of consensus under which all members must agree to any joint statement. Reports from AFP and AP

TAGS: Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China, Features, Global Nation, South China Sea

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