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CHINA REVEALS ITS HAND ON ASEAN
By Ernest Bower
Senior Adviser and DirectorSoutheast Asia Program, CSIS, Washington DC.
For the first time in its 45-year history, ASEAN’s foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communiqué following their annual consultations last week in Phnom Penh. It is important to understand this high-profile failure. What happened? And what does it mean for ASEAN and for the strategies of the United States and other countries with strong interests in the Asia Pacific?
Problems arose when it was time to draft the joint communiqué. The Cambodian chair, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong, had 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’s view was that the communiqué should reflect that the ministers had discussed the confrontation between the Philippines and China at Scarborough Shoal and Vietnam’s desire to address exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Language reflecting that fact was included in the draft submitted to the chair.
Repeatedly, however, after taking the draft under consideration, Hor Nam Hong consulted with advisers outside of the meeting room and came back rejecting language referring to Scarborough Shoal and the EEZ’s, even after multiple attempts to find a compromise. He said Cambodia’s view was that those were bilateral issues and therefore could not be mentioned in the joint statement.
Interestingly, reports—substantiated by those present—circulated that Cambodian officials shared drafts of the proposed joint statement with Chinese interlocutors. These leaks, some suggest, were from Chinese sources.
In the end, ASEAN announced there would be no joint communiqué at the end of the meetings. This was a spectacular failure for the regional grouping and an outcome that, on the surface, seemed not to be in any nation’s interests. Media reports suggested that ASEAN disunity was on display and that the regional grouping was in organizational chaos.
A Deeper Look
A deeper look reveals important trends beneath the surface. In fact, what happened in Phnom Penh is a critical piece to answering questions about what China wants and what China wants to be.
Fundamentally, the chaos at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) appears to be an outcome manipulated by a China that has decided that a weak and divided ASEAN is in its national interests. Understanding that fact, and the fact that ASEAN has the capacity and commitment to overcome China’s shortsighted campaign to break its ranks, is a necessary condition for advising the policies of countries that want to advance regional structures that will promote peace, security, and prosperity in the Asia Pacific.
China apparently was surprised when Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, in his remarks opening the ASEAN meetings last week, emphasized the need for the ministers to work together to resolve disputes in the South China Sea. Consequently, it seems clear that pressure on Cambodia increased. Leading up to the ASEAN meetings, China had pushed most of the ASEAN countries hard, particularly the Cambodians, to keep the South China Sea off the ARF agenda. It has repeatedly stated it wishes to deal bilaterally with issues related to the South China Sea and does not want them discussed in multilateral forums.
However, ASEAN recognizes that its members must work together on such issues as well as advance ASEAN’s economic integration 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 recognized the importance of an increasingly unified and confident ASEAN as the foundation of new regional architecture advancing security, political, and economic dialogue, alignment, and peace and prosperity.
China has revealed its hand as an outlier on the question of ASEAN unity. It seemingly used its growing economic power to press Cambodia into the awkward position of standing up to its ASEAN neighbors on an issue that is one of the most important security concerns for the grouping and its members. China’s overt role, underlined by leaks about Cambodia’s complicity in sharing drafts, seems to suggest Beijing’s hand in promoting ASEAN disunity. Thus the most important message coming from Phnom Penh is not the intramural ASEAN spat over the joint statement but, rather, that China has decided that a weak and splintered ASEAN is in its best interests.
The Way Ahead
In next four years, ASEAN members Brunei Darussalam, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Laos will each assume responsibility for the yearlong chairmanship of the organization. China has clearly focused on these upcoming chairs: reports suggest that two of those countries were the only ones to voice support for the Cambodian chair’s efforts to keep mention of Scarborough Shoal and exclusive economic zones out of the joint statement.
ASEAN, as well as countries interested in a strong and mature ASEAN, must invest early in supporting the upcoming chairs and the process of ensuring that ASEAN as a regional organization has the institutional confidence to resist efforts by other countries to advance their own sovereign and commercial interests by undermining regional cooperation.
For the United States, this means that policy leaders need to be clear about what happened in Phnom Penh and advise the policy community, business community, and media why the message from Cambodia is not that “ASEAN is in disarray and the United States should proceed carefully and reduce its engagement and investment.” Instead, the message is that “ASEAN unity is not supported by China and the United States needs to redouble its efforts to engage and support ASEAN’s goals for integration.”
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