Days of heated diplomacy at Southeast Asian talks ended in failure yesterday as deep splits over China prevented ASEAN from issuing its customary joint statement for the first time.
Foreign ministers from the 10-member bloc have been wrangling since Monday to hammer out a diplomatic communique, which has held up progress on a separate code of conduct aimed at soothing tension in the flashpoint South China Sea.
China claims sovereignty over nearly all of the resource-rich sea, which is home to vital shipping lanes, but ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims in the area.
The long-stalled code of conduct, strongly supported by the US, is seen as a way of reducing the chances of a spat over fishing, shipping rights or oil and gas exploration tipping into an armed conflict.
China described the meeting as “productive,” but the Philippines lambasted the failure at the end of the talks, saying: “It deplores the non-issuance of a joint communique ... which was unprecedented in ASEAN’s 45-year existence.”
It had insisted ASEAN refer to an armed stand-off with China last month over a rocky outcrop known as the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島), which is also claimed by Taiwan, but Cambodia — a Beijing ally and chair of the meeting — resisted.
Taking “strong exception” to Cambodia, the Philippine statement said divisions undercut ASEAN’s goal of tackling disputes as a bloc “and not in a bilateral fashion — the approach which its northern neighbor [China] has been insisting on.”
Manila and Washington called this week for a unified ASEAN that could use its collective clout to negotiate with China, while Beijing prefers to deal with its smaller neighbors individually.
“China realizes that it will be much more difficult to deal with the issue against ASEAN,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. “The tactic is to divide and rule.”
Yesterday, Chinese state media reported that a 30-vessel fishing fleet had been sent to the Spratly Islands (南沙群島) in the South China Sea, which are contested by Taiwan, China, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam. Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines have all recently complained about perceived Chinese aggression in the sea over separate disputed seas.
Diplomatic sources, speaking anonymously, referred to angry exchanges at the ASEAN forum this week, with an emergency meeting called for early yesterday morning also failing to break the deadlock on the joint statement.
“I think it would be fair to say that tempers in some of the private meetings have run hot. There have been some very tense back and forths,” one US official said on Thursday.
China is a key bankroller of the host Cambodia and some diplomats said Beijing had twisted arms in Phnom Penh to prevent any reference to the South China Sea disputes in the communique.
“It is a productive meeting and China’s views and position on many issues has won the appreciation and support of many participating countries,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin (劉為民) said.
Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong expressed regret at the discord within ASEAN, but said he could “not accept that the joint communique has become the hostage of the bilateral issue [between the Philippines and China].”