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Asean issues watered down rebuke on South China Sea

VIENTIANE — Regional foreign ministers gathering in Laos on Monday afternoon (July 25) issued the keenly anticipated Joint Communique of the 49th Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, but failed to make direct reference to an international tribunal ruling that invalidated China’s expansive claims in the disputed South China Sea.

Asean issues watered down rebuke on South China Sea

From left to right: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yassay, at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) –China Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Vientiane, Laos, Monday, July 25, 2016. PHOTO: AP

VIENTIANE — Regional foreign ministers gathering in Laos on Monday afternoon (July 25) issued the keenly anticipated Joint Communique of the 49th Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, but failed to make direct reference to an international tribunal ruling that invalidated China’s expansive claims in the disputed South China Sea.

Despite being divided on the South China Sea issue, the foreign ministers called for “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes”, in what may be a watered down rebuke to China’s assertive actions in the regional maritime domain.

“We reaffirm our shared commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability in the region, as well as to the peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos),” said the joint communique.

Following the release of the joint communique, Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan wrote in a Facebook post on Monday afternoon: “Delighted that Asean demonstrated unity of purpose by issuing a principled joint communique that was all the more crucial given recent developments in our region. Asean unity is essential for Asean centrality in shaping our regional strategic architecture.” Dr Balakrishnan wrote that the most challenging part of the negotiations was the formulation of relevant diplomatic language on respect for legal and diplomatic processes. “It is an important statement of principle that is worth emphasising. It goes to the heart of the challenge for small states like us,” he said.

“Asean-China relations are also now on a more positive trajectory. We reached agreement on the Joint Statement on the full and effective Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. This will help to safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Dr Balakrishnan added.

Asean foreign ministers struggled to find common ground on maritime disputes in the South China Sea over the weekend despite holding three rounds of formal and informal talks, after Cambodia – a key diplomatic ally of China, stuck to its demand that the group make no reference in a statement to an international court ruling against Beijing’s expansive claim in the disputed waterway, diplomats said.

Manila and Hanoi both wanted the grouping’s joint communique to refer to the United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling, which earlier this month handed an emphatic legal victory to  the Philippines in the maritime dispute, which Beijing has claimed is “null and void”.  The Philippines and Vietnam were also pushing  for the communique to address the need to respect international law. 

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, to which around US$5 trillion (S$6.8 trillion) in global trade passes each year. Asean members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as self-ruled Taiwan also have rival claims.

Asean unity and relevance to the regional geopolitical landscape have been called into question, especially after 2012 when the grouping’s foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in the bloc’s history due to Cambodia’s resistance to diplomatic language on the South China Sea. 

Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan wrote on Facebook that the references to the South China Sea in the joint communique are weak formulations that reflect what Cambodia can go along with.

“A weak formulation is better than no formulation. Asean can only work by consensus and while we have had serious disagreements in the past what we have at least shared is a consensus on always having a consensus lest the organisation break up,” he said.

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