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China shoots itself in the foot with divide and rule tactics in Asean

Relations between the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) and China suffered yet another blow during the Special Asean-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting that ended in Kunming, China, on Tuesday.

Following the Asean-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Tuesday, Malaysia issued a statement on escalating tensions in the S China Sea which was taken back hours later. Photo: Reuters

Following the Asean-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Tuesday, Malaysia issued a statement on escalating tensions in the S China Sea which was taken back hours later. Photo: Reuters

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Relations between the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) and China suffered yet another blow during the Special Asean-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting that ended in Kunming, China, on Tuesday.

From Asean’s standpoint, the meeting was intended to help repair its fraying relationship with China due to developments in the South China Sea. In fact, the proposal for the meeting was initially met with scepticism within Asean for fear that China will use the meeting as a public relations exercise to serve Beijing’s ends. This concern turned out not to be unfounded as China attempted to have the Asean foreign ministers endorse a 10-point consensus in Kunming.

China had steadfastly maintained that the South China Sea issue should be kept off the Asean-China table, maintaining that the territorial disputes should be resolved through bilateral talks. Beijing’s stance is that the issue, which pits China against four Asean member states in Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, should not spill over to influence ties between both sides.

This is wishful thinking and more than anything amplifies Beijing’s growing disconnect with regional sentiments and Asean’s growing unease with China’s use of its political, economic and military power.

It is telling that a statement released on the meeting by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs focused exclusively on the upcoming Asean-China Commemorative Summit. The South China Sea did not get a single mention, even though this was the primary subject of discussions between the ministers. On the other hand, 55 per cent, or 512 out of 929, of the words contained in the retracted Asean Foreign Ministers’ statement was on the South China Sea.

The fact that the statement was discussed and initially agreed upon by Asean demonstrates the possibility of the pact achieving unanimity on the South China Sea issue without undue external interference. Equally important, the collective effort undermines China’s allegations that some Asean countries have taken on an anti-China bent, as seen from their forthright views and assessments on the issue.

In the midst of this drama, the meeting will long be remembered for the retraction of the statement. Unusually, the statement was circulated to the media by Malaysia. This oddity became more puzzling when a Malaysian foreign ministry spokesperson retracted the statement with an announcement that there were “urgent amendments to be made”.

This unusual turn of events immediately raises the question of Malaysia’s involvement in the debacle and the reasons for the retraction.

Perhaps a more insidious development pertains to reports of Laos and Cambodia withdrawing their support for the statement at the eleventh hour. This is reminiscent of the fiasco in Phnom Penh in 2012, when Asean foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in its 45-year history. At that point, China had reportedly pressed Cambodia to keep the South China Sea topic from finding its way into the statement.

History repeated itself in Kunming, but will China’s long hand show itself again at the Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting next month? At this point, China has warned Asean not to cross the “red line” in issuing a joint statement on the impending Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) ruling on the South China Sea. What effect these warnings have on Asean remains to be seen, but the evidence presented in Kunming points to Beijing having a winning hand.

Quite frankly, China’s ability to muzzle Asean is disturbing.

It undermines Asean centrality and prevents the grouping from having meaningful discussions on strategic issues. By stage-managing the organisation through allies such as Laos and Cambodia, China robs Asean of its utility as a platform for intra and inter-regional cooperation. China’s purported hold on these two Asean members gives Beijing an indirect but effective veto over positions anathema to its interest.




The Kunming debacle is an eye-opener in two important aspects that will have long-term and critical effects on Asean. First, Asean needs to accept the reality that it is “broken”. The meetings in Phnom Penh and Kunming have shown that China has two Trojan horses within Asean that are happy to do China’s bidding and paralyse Asean when it is in Beijing’s interest to do so. Vientiane and Phnom Penh should realise that currying favour with Beijing is not without its cost and consequences.

Playing the role of Trojan horses sows suspicion and undermines trust amongst the Asean member states. The failure of the Asean foreign ministers to issue the joint statement is symptomatic of Asean’s outmoded institutional design that favours unanimity over function and efficiency.

The Trojan horse effect may be more pronounced if Timor-Leste is admitted into Asean in the coming years. China was the first country to establish diplomatic ties with Timor-Leste when it gained independence in 2002, and has over the years extended its charm diplomacy to Dili. Some of the fruits of Chinese largesse and generosity include the construction of the Presidential Palace, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defence and military headquarters. Timor-Leste looks set to be a prime recruit into the Trojan stables, adding to China’s hold on Asean.

Asean’s survival as an autonomous body rests on its ability to neutralise external influences in its affairs. In this regard, a review of the unanimity rule is warranted.

Second, the gap and inconsistency between the Asean and Chinese narrative of events that unfolded in Kunming is startling and could only be explained by either incompetent note-takers or spin-doctoring at the highest level. Either way, the well has been poisoned. Asean-China relations now stands on one of its lowest point since China became Asean’s dialogue partner in 1996. Diplomats from both sides will look at each other differently and struggle to regain lost trust.

The Kunming debacle has become a part of the Asean-China history. Both sides will have to live with its aftermath. Asean and China have the choice of indulging in blame games or sweeping it under the carpet and live in a make-believe world that relations have never been better. Both are poor choices and bode ill for future relations.

On the other hand, the public linen washing could serve as the impetus to “reset” the bilateral relations. The South China Sea issue will take centre stage in future efforts to mend fences, but the most critical question that both sides have to address is to find a modality in which diplomacy can be conducted in a frank, sincere and transparent manner. Trojan horses belong to a bygone era and have no place in the Asean pasture.

China does itself a disservice when it tries to stymie Asean discussions as it shows a side of China that South-east Asia — and the rest of the world — does not and never hopes to see.



Dr Tang Siew Mun is Head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. The views here are his own.

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