The annual meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers was held this week in Kuala Lumpur and, as expected, nothing really happened. It was left to those outside the region to deliver tough talk about China’s expansionist island-building program in the South China Sea, which US Secretary of State John Kerry obligingly did on Thursday.
The meeting’s final communique mentioned “the serious concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations in the South China Sea,” which it said “have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.”
It is hard to believe it took two days of supposed “wrangling” by the ministers to come up with such an insipid statement, which could have been written before the meeting’s opening ceremony, thereby saving a lot of time, money and cups of coffee.
Beijing’s contempt and disdain for its southern neighbors was evident in Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi’s (王毅) remarks to a joint news conference in the Malaysian capital on Wednesday after his delegation and ASEAN officials met and said they had agreed to “speed up” consultations on a code of conduct for the South China Sea.
Wang said China’s land reclamation efforts had already stopped, that China and ASEAN shared a desire to resolve the issue through dialogue and that nations outside the region should refrain from actions that could escalate or complicate the situation.
What makes Wang’s assertion about “sharing a desire” to resolve the issue through talks so contemptible is that ASEAN’s quandary over China’s actions goes back two decades, to Beijing occupying Mischief Reef (Meiji Reef, 美濟礁) and building structures on the island. ASEAN foreign ministers at the time responded to Beijing’s move by issuing a statement expressing their “serious” concern and urged the parties involved — the Philippines and China — “to refrain from taking actions that destabilize the situation.”
Manila pressed its fellow ASEAN members to support a code of conduct for the South China Sea aimed at preventing further Chinese encroachment, but it took them three years to come up with a draft agreement, which was then given to China in March 2000 and Beijing gave its proposal to ASEAN.
More than two years went by before ASEAN and China signed a non-binding Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which proved to be not worth the paper it was written on because it took another three years before ASEAN was able to draft guidelines to implement the declaration.
Nothing substantial has happened since, because China continues to insist on bilateral discussions with individual ASEAN states to resolve disputes, not collective action or international arbitration. Every time the Philippines has been able to make even the slightest headway with its fellow members toward taking a tougher line, Beijing either issues another promise to collaborate or gets its allies/stooges in the alliance — Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos — to block progress.
China’s interference was so blatant — via host Cambodia — during the 2012 ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh that the only way the pro-action faction was able to signal its unhappiness was by refusing to go along with the issuance of the traditional joint communique that ends each meeting. It was the first time in the association’s history that a joint statement was not released.
As usual, believe what Beijing does, not what it says. China does not “share a desire” to resolve the issue through dialogue and it has no interest in “speeding up” consultations. The only thing it is interested in doing is speeding up its reclamation and building efforts in the South China Sea — those are the only “concrete” issues it is concerned about.
That should be of “serious concern” to everyone, not just ASEAN members.
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