China reveals its hand on ASEAN in Phnom Penh

Author: Ernest Z. Bower, CSIS, Washington

For the first time in its 45-year history, ASEAN’s foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communiqué following their annual meeting in Phnom Penh, which ended 13 July.

What happened? And what does it mean for ASEAN and others with strong interests in the Asia Pacific?

The meeting appeared to be running smoothly. Delegates reportedly spent hours reviewing a substantive agenda that touched on a broad array of concerns ranging from economic integration to political and security alignment, as well as social and cultural cooperation. Even politically sensitive issues such as North Korea, bilateral tensions between ASEAN countries, and the disputes in the South China Sea were discussed.

Problems arose when the time came to draft the joint communiqué. The Cambodian chair, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, delegated the drafting to a committee of four colleagues: Marty Natalegawa of Indonesia, Anifah Aman of Malaysia, Albert Del Rosario of the Philippines, and Pham Binh Minh of Vietnam. The Philippines insisted that the communiqué should reflect the ministers’ discussion of the confrontation between the Philippines and China at Scarborough Shoal, while Vietnam wanted the declaration to address exclusive economic zones (EEZs). The draft submitted to the chair reflected both the Philippines’ and Vietnam’s will.

After taking the draft under consideration, Hor Namhong left the meeting room to consult with outside advisers. He came back rejecting references to the Scarborough Shoal and EEZs, despite multiple attempts to find a compromise. Cambodia argued those were bilateral issues and therefore could not be mentioned in an ASEAN joint statement. Reports — possibly circulated by Chinese sources and later substantiated by those present — suggested that Cambodian officials shared drafts of the statement with Chinese interlocutors.

In the end, ASEAN announced there would be no joint communiqué following the meeting. This was a spectacular failure for the regional grouping and an outcome that seemed to be in none of the 10 nations’ interests.

Superficial analyses of the failure have pointed to internal conflict within ASEAN, particularly between the chair, Cambodia, and the Philippines, which is seeking ASEAN’s support in its rejection of Chinese ‘creeping assertiveness’.

A deeper look reveals an important trend beneath the surface. In fact, what happened in Phnom Penh is critical to understanding what China wants and what China wants to become. The disagreements at both the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting and the ASEAN Regional Forum appear to be an outcome manipulated by China, which considers a weak and divided ASEAN to serve its own national interests.

China seemed surprised when Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, in his opening to the ASEAN meetings last week, emphasised that ministers need to work together to resolve disputes in the South China Sea. Consequently, it seems clear that pressure on Cambodia increased. China had pushed ASEAN countries — particularly the Cambodians — to keep the South China Sea off the agenda at the ASEAN Regional Forum, which was held concurrently with the Ministerial Meeting. China has repeatedly stated that it wishes to deal bilaterally with the South China Sea claimants and does not want these territorial disputes discussed in multilateral fora.

For its part, ASEAN recognises that in addition to advancing ASEAN’s economic integration, member states must work together on issues including the South China Sea to effectively compete with regional giants such as China and India in the coming decades. ASEAN and almost all other members in the East Asia Summit have recognised the importance of the grouping as the foundation of new regional architecture advancing security, political and economic dialogue.

China has revealed its hand on the question of ASEAN unity. It seems to have used its growing economic power to press Cambodia into the awkward position of rebuffing its ASEAN neighbours on one of the association’s most important security concerns. The most important news to come out of Phnom Penh is not about the spat over the joint statement but the indication that China has decided that a weak and splintered ASEAN is in its best interests.

ASEAN must take a clear-eyed view of the message that China sent in Phnom Penh. The organisation should stay the course laid out in the ASEAN charter and strive for political, economic and social integration by 2015.

In the next four years Brunei, Myanmar, Malaysia and Laos will each chair ASEAN. China has clearly focused on these upcoming chairs, and reports suggest that two of those countries were the only ones to support Cambodian efforts to keep the mentions of Scarborough Shoal and EEZs out of the joint statement.

ASEAN and its supporters — including the US and other members of the East Asia Summit — must support the upcoming chairs. ASEAN needs institutional confidence to resist efforts by other countries to advance their own sovereign and commercial interests by undermining regional cooperation. The message from Cambodia is not that ‘ASEAN is in disarray’, but that ‘ASEAN unity is not supported by China’.

Ernest Z. Bower is Senior Adviser and Director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC.

This article was first published here in Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th and K Streets.

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