The South China Sea was anticipated to be one major topic of discussion during the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Kunming on June 14, but the outcome—the retraction of an ASEAN statement only three hours after being sent to the media—has made divisions over the South China Sea the only talking point emerging from the meeting on broader ASEAN-China bilateral relations. The statement was stronger than most previous commentary from ASEAN, including specific references to land reclamation and an implied reference to the Philippines’ ongoing legal case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The statement also notably confirmed that the issue is relevant to ASEAN-China bilateral relations, countering the long-time stance of China that South China Sea disputes are a bilateral issue between claimants. Since the retraction, there have been a plethora of contradictory statements and no revised statement has been released.
While divisions over the South China Sea are not new to ASEAN, the lack of a coordinated response raises serious questions about ASEAN’s ability to effectively respond as tensions over the South China Sea continue to rise. The emergence of numerous reports that consensus on the statement was withdrawn after-the-fact due to China pressuring Laos appears to many observers a repeat of ASEAN’s failure in 2012 to reach consensus on a joint statement during the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia.
Cambodia’s failure to cajole consensus from the group in 2012 was also due to disagreement over how to handle the South China Sea disputes, the first time that such a thing happened in ASEAN’s then 45-year history. The failure was blamed squarely on Cambodia’s for allowing its close relationship with China to challenge ASEAN centrality and interfere with ASEAN policy decisions. The question moving forward is whether this will be a repeat of 2012’s failed joint communique or whether Laos as ASEAN Chair for 2016 will be able to successfully coordinate a joint statement from this year’s ASEAN Summit.
The differences in China and ASEAN’s characterizations of the meeting are stark. Where China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi noted in his public remarks that “this [the South China Sea dispute] isn’t an issue between China and ASEAN” and emphasized that there had been few disagreements, the ASEAN statement was clear that “[ASEAN] also cannot ignore what is happening in the South China Sea as it is an important issue in the relations and cooperation between ASEAN and China.” Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who co-chaired the meeting in Kunming, failed to appear alongside Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a planned press release in Kunming and instead echoed the retracted statement’s language in a separate press release in Singapore. On June 16, spokespeople for Indonesia and Vietnam stated that there had been consensus over the contents, though Indonesia noted that the statement was intended to be a media guidance statement rather than an official joint statement. The Philippines seconded that there had been consensus among ASEAN foreign ministers when their meeting ended and that Malaysia’s release of the statement had not been in error.
Like Cambodia and Myanmar, Laos is a least-developed country and is considered one of the region’s most vulnerable to Chinese pressures over the South China Sea given its non-claimant status and relative economic dependence on Chinese investment, trade, and loans. And unlike Myanmar, Laos has not recently received an influx of economic assistance from other countries that provide it with development alternatives if China’s assistance were taken away due to political disagreements.
At first glance, it seems that China has “won” by once again disrupting a unified ASEAN statement on the South China Sea. Prashanth Parameswaran’s excellent Diplomat piece on the fiasco correctly questions this conclusion, pointing out that the statement’s release and the following media frenzy show that China successfully blocked an official statement but failed to establish its preferred narrative framework for debate on the issue. Blocking a unified ASEAN statement is not as ideal for China as preventing ASEAN from forming a consensus in the first place, but it may be good enough to prevent action on the issue for the rest of Laos’ ASEAN Chairmanship.
After all, China’s activities in the South China Sea are only partly about changing the short-term narrative; the more central goal is to slowly alter the status-quo in China’s favor. This is visible in China’s establishment of military bases on created islands and regular presence of its Coast Guard vessels in the region, which change the on-the-ground calculus and make it increasingly hard for other claimants to push back against Chinese intrusions.
This episode has shown us two things: first, that China’s aggressive behavior has in fact pushed countries in the region that previously preferred to stay away from conflict, such as Singapore and Indonesia, to take a stronger stance against disruptive behavior and in favor of international law. Second, that China is still fully capable and willing to use its role as a regional financier, trading partner, and neighboring behemoth to ensure that the ASEAN bloc cannot effectively act against its interests even in the face of growing regional discomfort over China’s behavior.
The most important question moving forward is not which side has “won” or “lost” in this round of discussion over the South China Sea, but what will happen during the latter half of Laos’ ASEAN Chairmanship in 2016.
Prior to this incident, indications were that Laos would follow the steps of Malaysia (Chair in 2015) and Myanmar (Chair in 2014) in balancing between meeting Chinese pressures to avoid the issue and meeting pressures inside ASEAN from other claimant states to address it. Laos Prime Minister Thammavong indicated to US Secretary John Kerry in January 2016 that he sought a unified ASEAN stance and would seek to counter Chinese militarization and assertiveness on the South China Sea issues.
Earlier ASEAN statements expressed concerns over recent developments on the South China Sea issues without being overly specific. The outcome of the US-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit—while failing to specify concerns over China’s activities—hinted at China’s role by highlighting the principle of ASEAN centrality and the need for countries to respect diplomatic processes in the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes. China’s announcement in April 2016 that it had reached consensus with Laos, Cambodia, and Brunei, while criticized due to Laos’ role as ASEAN Chair, was ultimately not a great departure from Laos’ previous statements on the issue.
Laos has many motivations to balance between ASEAN and China: for one, Laos’ recent leadership transition led to the ouster of leaders viewed as particularly pro-China, likely linked to numerous investment deals with China that are now recognized as having few benefits for the country as a whole. The installation of Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, who is considered to be relatively pro-Vietnam, opens the door to a foreign policy that will better balance China’s influence. Second, there is significant pressure from other ASEAN claimants to avoid giving China’s position too much deference. Cambodia’s failure in 2012 reinforced outside views of the organization as a talk-shop unable to stand up to pressure from China and raised serious questions about the region’s real commitment to ASEAN Centrality.
Despite being (by most measures) less developed than Laos and having only recently emerged from being a regional pariah, Myanmar was fairly successful at maintaining the balance during in its 2015 Chairmanship. For Lao elites’ who are seeking to graduate beyond the label of a least-developed country and who are eager to avoid being viewed as less capable than their neighbors, Myanmar’s success poses an additional motivation for Laos to avoid a similar failure.
Based on the ire poured on Cambodia after its 2012 failure to get a joint communique, it is likely that the emerging debate over the retracted media guidance statement will only add to the pressure on Laos to ensure that there is a joint communique from the ASEAN Summit later this year. By flexing its muscles to force a retraction after the Special Meeting and raising the specter of its influence over individual ASEAN states, China may well have primed other ASEAN members to spend more time and diplomatic capital fighting for the inclusion of something similar in the ASEAN joint statement later this year.
The recent statement fiasco raises questions about how effectively Laos can stand up to pressure from China, but the leadership transition means that greater engagement from Vietnam and other ASEAN countries on controversial issues ahead of time may be welcome. China may have attained its goal to dissuade a joint ASEAN statement critical of China’s behavior emerging from a meeting hosted on its own ground, but in doing so it may have reminded ASEAN countries of their need to stick together in the face of powerful neighbors and made it harder to win future battles on the subject.