ASEAN: Back to business as usual?

VietNamNet Bridge - Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa recently conducted an intense round of shuttle diplomacy visiting Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia in order to secure agreement on “ASEAN’s Six-Point Principles on the East Sea.” When asked by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to sum up the results of his efforts he replied it was “back to business as usual.”

Foreign Minister Marty meant that he had managed to overcome the appearance of ASEAN disarray when ASEAN foreign ministers were unable to reach agreement on four paragraphs on the East Sea included in a draft Joint Communique to summarize the results of their 45th Ministerial Meeting.

Why no joint communique?

Foreign Minister Marty stood alongside Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Hor Namhong when he issued ASEAN’s six point statement. Cambodia’s Foreign Minister, however, could not resist laying the blame for ASEAN’s failure to issue a Joint Communique on Vietnam and the Philippines.

The record of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) Retreat tells a different story. According to notes of the discussions drawn up by a participant which I have seen, Cambodia’s twice rejected attempts by the Philippines, Vietnam and other ASEAN members to include a reference to recent developments in the East Sea. Each time Cambodia threatened that it would withhold the Joint Communique.

The East Sea issue was discussed during the plenary session of the AMM Retreat.  The Philippines spoke first and was followed by Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Cambodia.

Foreign Minister Del Rosario described past and current examples of Chinese “expansion and aggression” that prevented “the Philippines from enforcing it laws and forcing the Philippines to retreat from its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).” Del Rosario asked rhetorically, “what would be the real value of the Code of Conduct (COC) if we could not uphold the DOC?” Del Rosario ended his intervention stating it was “important that ASEAN’s collective commitment to uphold the Declaration on Conduct of Parties (DOC) be reflected in the Joint Communique of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting.”

Four other countries directly addressed this point. Vietnam described China’s creation of Sansha City and China National Offshore Oil Company’s invitation for bids as “serious violations of Vietnam’s sovereignty and jurisdiction over its EEZ and Continental Shelf.” Vietnam argued that the Joint Communique should reflect this. Indonesia underscored the importance of ASEAN acting with one voice and noted that recent developments were of concern to all ASEAN members. Indonesia endorsed concluding a Code of Conduct and promised to “circulate a non-paper on possible and additional elements of the COC.”

Malaysia endorsed the comments by Indonesia and stressed “we must talk with a single voice; ASEAN must show [its] united voice; [otherwise] our credibility will be undermined.” Malaysia concluded, “We must refer to the situation in the East Sea, particularly any acts that contravene the international law on EEZ and continental shelves. It is totally unacceptable that we can’t have it in the Joint Communique. It is important that ASEAN has a clear expression of our concerns on the East Sea in the Joint Communique.”

Singapore noted that “recent developments were of special concern” because they raised “novel interpretations of international law that could undermine the entire UNCLOS regime.” Singapore concluded by arguing “it is important that ASEAN has a clear expression of our concerns on the East Sea in the Joint Communique… Damaging to us if we don’t say anything.”

Until Cambodia spoke no country took exception to the interventions by the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. When it was Cambodia’s turn to speak its foreign minister queried why it was necessary to mention Scarborough Shoal. He then abruptly declared, “I need to be frank with you, in case we cannot find the way out, Cambodia has no more recourse to deal with this issue. Then, there will be no text at all. We should not try to impose national positions; we should try to reflect the common views in the spirit of compromise.”

At this point the discussion became heated, both the Philippines and Vietnam continued to argue their cases. Additional interventions were made by Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. The AMM Retreat was brought to an end by Cambodia’s foreign minister who declared. “We can never achieve [agreement] even though we stay here for the next four or five hours… If you cannot agree on the text of the Joint Communique; we have no more recourse to deal with this issue as the Chair of ASEAN.”

Business as usual 1

Foreign Minister Marty correctly pointed out that although no Joint Communique was issued, ASEAN foreign ministers did reach agreement on the “key elements” of a Code of Conduct in the East Sea. As a result of his shuttle diplomacy, ASEAN foreign ministers agreed to “the early conclusion of a Regional Code of Conduct in the East Sea.”

Cambodia, as ASEAN Chair, hosted two informal meetings between ASEAN and Chinese senior officials to discuss the way forward on the COC. China publicly announced that it was ready to enter into formal discussions with ASEAN “when conditions were ripe”. If all goes to plan ASEAN and Chinese senior officials will discuss the modalities of their forthcoming discussions. They need to determine at what level they will meet, how often, and to whom they will report. Formal discussions are scheduled to commence in September. ASEAN officials home to complete negotiations by November.

Indonesia’s Foreign Minister’s shuttle diplomacy provided a much needed boost to ASEAN morale. His efforts also helped to dispel the perception outside of Southeast Asia that there was disunity among ASEAN members on how to deal with the East Sea issue. More importantly, Indonesia’s intervention served notice on Cambodia as ASEAN Chair that it could not unilaterally control ASEAN’s agenda. Foreign Minister’s intervention was unprecedented. He undertook a leadership role that normally would fall to the ASEAN Chair. Finally, Foreign Minister Marty’s intervention signalled that Indonesia is willing to play a more proactive role in regional affairs. This is in contrast to the Suharto years when Indonesia, viewed as the natural leader of Southeast Asia, played a low-key “softly, softly” role.

Business as usual 2

There is another meaning to foreign minister Marty’s expression “back to business as usual.” This second meaning refers to China’s renewed assertiveness in seeking to exercise its jurisdiction over the East Sea. This has taken three forms. First, China has raised Sansha from county to prefecture level and given it administrative responsibility over the Hoang Sa (Paracel) Islands, Macclesfield Bank and Spratly Islands. Indeed, Hainan provincial authorities rushed to appoint local officials to this new unit. Elections will be held to select representatives to the National People’s Congress.

Second, China’s Hainan province dispatched thirty trawlers and four escort vessels to fish in the waters in the Truong Sa (Spratly) Islands. The fleet first fished off Fiery Cross Reef before moving to Johnson South Reef.

Third, and most significantly, China’s Central Military Committee, issued a directive establishing a military garrison in (so-called) Sansha prefecture. This garrison will have responsibility for national defence of an area covering thirteen square kilometres of territory and two million square miles of water. The headquarters will be based on Woody Island.

Business as usual means that while ASEAN negotiates a COC with China, China will continue to apply pressure and intimidation on both the Philippines and Vietnam.

Carlyle A. Thayer