The latest round of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) ministerial meetings in Manila, which saw foreign ministers from 27 countries in attendance, produced at best mixed results.
With US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in attendance, the agenda focused on two key regional security issues: North Korea and the South China Sea. China was the clear winner by managing to avoid any serious criticism over its activities in the disputed maritime area as well as assistance to Pyongyang.
Tillerson managed to get regional support, including from China, against North Korea’s provocative behavior, with Asean leaders expressing “grave concern” over the rising tensions on the Korean peninsula. The regional grouping urged Pyongyang, whose diplomats were in attendance, to abide by international law and contribute to “the Asia-Pacific as a region of lasting peace, stability, friendship and prosperity.”
The joint Asean communiqué came on the heels of the United Nations Security Council decision to pass tough new sanctions against the reclusive regime. Both Russia and China supported the US-sponsored sanctions. Cooperation among Asean countries, some of which have considerable trade and financial transactions with Pyongyang, is crucial to tightening the noose around the isolated regime.
Shortly after, Tillerson met with counterparts from Beijing and Seoul on the sidelines of the Asean meetings to ensure full cooperation on the issue. Tillerson and South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung hailed the latest event as a “very good outcome.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reportedly had “intensive conversation” with America’s chief diplomat, with both broadly in agreement on the need to ratchet up tensions on North Korea. The dashing and self-confident Chinese diplomat gave his own press conference and held direct talks with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong.
China urged dialogue and restraint, yet took a visibly tougher stance against its ally, which recently tested an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) and could be on the verge of extending its ballistic missile reach to continental America. Wang chastised North Korea against “”provoke[ing] international society’s goodwill.”
The US State Department welcomed China’s latest remarks but expressed doubts as to whether Beijing will stick to its side of the bargain. “We want to make sure China is continuing to implement fully the sanctions regime” cautioned Susan Thornton, the lead US diplomat for Asia-Pacific region, “not this kind of episodic back and forth that we’ve seen.”
North Korea’s leading state-owned newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, lashed out at the sanctions, dismissing them as “desperate efforts” meant to assuage Washington’s anxieties over the fear that “the US mainland is on the crossroads of life and death,” a reference to Pyongyang’s impending ability to strike continental America with its burgeoning missile technology.
While there was an element of consensus and growing cooperation on the North Korean issue, the same couldn’t be said about the South China Sea disputes. Indeed, Asean, a group which operates on a consensus basis, looked as divided as ever given China’s deep relations with countries such as Cambodia and increasingly warm ties with the Philippines, the current rotating chairman of the regional body.
Vietnam, which controls the largest number of land features in the contested Spratly islands, took an uncharacteristically outspoken and tough stance. In previous years, Vietnam generally played second-fiddle to the Philippines, which under the Benigno Aquino administration was the most outspoken critic of China’s growing footprint in the South China Sea.
But with the Rodrigo Duterte administration soft-pedaling on the disputes, Vietnam has stepped forward with a more strident diplomatic posture.
Hanoi urged Asean to more directly criticize China’s activities in disputed areas, particularly its massive reclamation activities and deployment of military assets to its artificially built islands in the Spratly and Paracel islands. Vietnam has also been accused of engaging in reclamation activities, but on a far smaller scale than China.
Other claimant countries such as Malaysia reportedly supported Vietnam’s call for mentioning “militarization” of the disputes in the final communiqué. Vietnam also pushed for an Asean consensus on negotiation of a “legally-binding” and “substantive” Code of Conduct (CoC) in the area, not just a symbolic and declaratory statement.
Cambodia, a staunch Chinese ally, reportedly blocked such efforts, which delayed the release of the joint statement. The Philippines, which refused to raise its own landmark arbitration award last year against China in the South China Sea amid warming ties with Beijing, tried to strike a delicate compromise.
In the final communiqué, Asean “took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers” on the reclamation and militarization issue, “which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.” In short, the document implied that there was no consensus on this.
However, the statement did mention the “importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants”, though without naming any particular culprit.
Crucially, the communiqué also mentioned “all other states”, a not-so-subtle criticism aimed at the United States and other external powers such as Japan, Australia and India, which have or are planning to ramp up their naval footprint in the area.
However, there was no mention of a “legally-binding” CoC, or “serious concern” over the direction of the maritime disputes, as Vietnam lobbied for. As such, the statement was softer than in previous years, including under the chairmanship of Laos, another key Chinese ally.
The communiqué notably implicitly criticized other major power, namely the US, for trying to restrain Beijing’s assertiveness in the area through so-called freedom of navigation operations.
As such, the latest Asean ministerial meeting was mostly clearly a diplomatic win for China and loss for those who hoped the regional grouping would develop a strong and common stance on the disputes.