Rodrigo Duterte (red shirt) speaking at Manila’s Rizal Park on May 7, 2016 (Simon Roughneen)


Rodrigo Duterte (red shirt) the newly elected president of the Philippines, speaking at Manila’s Rizal Park on May 7, 2016 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
Rodrigo Duterte (red shirt) the newly elected president of the Philippines, speaking at Manila’s Rizal Park on May 7, 2016 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — It was a meeting to mark the 25th anniversary of relations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China, and held in Kunming in southern China, a region known for historically close trading links with the neighboring Southeast Asian countries.

Surprisingly, given the location and the commemoration, ASEAN member state Malaysia issued a statement on behalf of the bloc criticizing China over its territorial claims in the contested South China Sea. The statement noted that recent developments in the disputed sea — where China has been building artificial islands and constructing what it calls “defensive facilities” while the U.S., an ally of the Philippines, has been conducting naval patrols and reconnaissance flights in the name of freedom of navigation — had raised concerns about a spillover clash with China.

Those fears, the statement added, had “the potential to undermine peace”.

“We stressed the importance of maintaining peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea,” the ASEAN foreign ministers said.

But in an about-turn as startling than the earlier statement, Malaysia — which chaired the bloc in 2015 before passing the leadership to Laos, a Communist-ruled country with close ties to China — led the way in issuing a sudden retraction, saying there were “urgent amendments to be made.”

To some, such wavering was testament to China’s capacity to divide the 10-member ASEAN grouping and to corral its allies inside the bloc, such as Cambodia and Laos, into doing its bidding. “They backed down completely,” said James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, discussing the recanting of the initial statement.

In 2012, rows over the South China Sea saw ASEAN chair Cambodia prevent the group from issuing a common statement at the end of a summit of ASEAN government heads, the first time in ASEAN’s history the bloc failed to come up with a concluding common statement.

This time  China itself dismissed any notion that it had pressured ASEAN into a retraction but also played down the idea that ASEAN could forge a common position on the disputed sea. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang said on June 15 that “all countries, including the 10 ASEAN members, are sovereign states where they make their own independent policy decisions.”

Overlapping claims

China’s territorial claims to the sea, a vital maritime routeway for an estimated $5bn worth of trade, put it at odds with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, some of which have overlapping claims with each other, while China and Indonesia have related overlapping claims around Indonesia’s Natuna islands. Countries such as the U.S., Japan and Australia have called for freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, while China in turn has called for non-claimant countries to stay out of the region.

China has a free trade agreement with ASEAN and has become an increasingly pivotal trade partner for and investor in ASEAN countries in the past decade, as its economy has grown to almost rival that of the U.S. as the world’s biggest. Collectively, ASEAN members do more business with China than with any other country, with trade between the two sides tripling over the past decade and growing by an annual 8.3% in 2014 to $480 billion, according to Chinese government figures.

Malaysia last year benefitted from a hefty Chinese bailout of the troubled state fund 1MDB, which prompted suggestions that ASEAN’s backtracking over its initial South China Sea statement was about Beijing calling in its diplomatic debts. However, James Chin put the leak of the ASEAN statement down to “Malaysian incompetence,” while unnamed diplomats present at the meeting have told news agencies that Laos, the ASEAN chair, was pressured by China into asking for the statement to be withdrawn. Indonesia’s government spokesperson Armanatha Nasir described the statement as a “media guideline,” rather than an official communique.

But despite the conflicting versions of what was said at the meeting and what ASEAN intended to relay afterwards, regional observers say the fact that the first, critical statement came about at all suggests a growing rift between ASEAN and China over the South China Sea. Some said that the statement offered a hint that most Southeast Asian countries perceive a need to take a stronger, common line against China with regard to the sea.

Since the statement was retracted, several ASEAN member states have said that the initial draft was an agreed statement, or at least that it reflected the group’s common position on the South China Sea.

Singapore, which co-chaired the meeting in its role as ASEAN’s China dialogue relations co-ordinator, also appeared to disagree with the retraction of the initial statement, with Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan failing to show up for a scheduled joint press conference with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi after the meeting.

Vietnam has a tense relationship with China over rival claims around islands in the South China Sea, known as the East Sea in Vietnam. Hanoi said that the initial statement reflected the agreed ASEAN position at the end of the meeting, which mentioned a “common stance of ASEAN member states on the issue of the South China Sea.”

Bill Hayton, author of South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, said that if Malaysia was opposed to the initial statement, “it would have tried to bury it.”

Hayton added that “the fact that Singapore ‘went unilateral’ and released their own summary of the foreign ministers’ discussion tells us that they wanted a strong statement too.”

“What’s remarkable is not so much that China wanted to suppress a strong statement on the South China Sea but that ASEAN was prepared to disrupt a major event — the 25th anniversary of China-ASEAN relations — in order to send a message to the Chinese government,” said Hayton.

In contrast, China played up the historic trappings of the meeting, which, it said, took place “against the background of the 25th anniversary of the establishment of China-ASEAN dialogue relations.”

“The meeting has consolidated and expanded the consensus on cooperation between both sides and uttered the common voice of China and ASEAN countries to devote themselves to maintaining peace and stability in the region,” said Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, at the post-meeting press conference.

The Philippines and other claimants to the South China Sea are awaiting a ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration on a case filed by Manila in 2013 against China’s claim to the South China Sea — a ruling which China is not expected to heed. On June 16, Manila issued a statement on the contentious ASEAN-China meeting, saying that the group’s foreign ministers “had a candid exchange with the Chinese foreign minister in view of the recent developments on the ground,” and “expressed their serious concerns over recent and ongoing developments, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and which may have the potential to undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.”

However newly-elected Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has said he wants to negotiate with China over the rival claims to shoals, reefs and rocks close to the Philippines and other islands close to the main Philippine island of Luzon. Duterte described the outgoing government, led by President Benigno Aquino, as too confrontational in approach to China, which has exercised de facto control of the Scarborough Shoal, around 150 miles off the coast of Luzon but 500 miles from China.

Duterte hopes for Chinese investment in improving the Philippine railway system as a quid pro quo for discussions, but has added that he will stand by for the ruling by the international court before making his next move.

“The arbitration ruling and process must be allowed to take its course up to a certain point,” said Aileen San Pablo-Baviera of the University of the Philippines, who said that the disagreement over the retracted statement “is very much about ASEAN support for the arbitration ruling.”

Follow us on Twitter