Indonesia cites error as Asean meet ends in confusion
JAKARTA — Indonesia yesterday said a bold statement from Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) raising concern over Beijing’s island-building in the South China Sea was issued in error, as a meeting over the issue ended in confusion.
In a statement released late Tuesday by Malaysia’s foreign ministry, the Asean warned that recent actions in the disputed waterway had “the potential to undermine peace.”
The statement described “a candid exchange” — language that hinted at a diplomatic confrontation — between the bloc’s foreign ministers and their Chinese counterpart at a meeting in Kunming, China. But just hours later a Malaysian foreign ministry spokesman said the Asean secretariat had retracted the statement headlined “Media statement by the Asean foreign ministers,” pending “urgent amendments.”
The text released by Malaysia was merely a “media guideline” for Asean ministers to refer to at a post-meeting press conference, and not an agreed final statement, Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir told Agence France Presse.
Analysts gave various theories, with one saying Asean had backtracked after coming under pressure from China, while another said Malaysia appeared to have released the statement prematurely by mistake.
Either way, the disarray was another example of the bloc’s perennial inability to present a united front toward China, which observers say has allowed Beijing to expand its sway over much of the South China Sea despite overlapping claims.
Asean members the Philippines and Vietnam have come into direct confrontation with China over territorial disputes, while non-claimants such as Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar have maintained closer ties with Beijing.
Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei, meanwhile, have generally walked a delicate line somewhere in the middle.
Nasir said the meeting of Southeast Asian foreign ministers and China had run over schedule, meaning that “the press conference was canceled and a number of Asean foreign ministers had to leave immediately.
“The Asean foreign ministers did not have a chance to discuss how they would release the content of the media guideline to the media.”
Malaysian officials could not be reached for comment, but the Asean secretariat in Jakarta said no official statement was issued after the meeting.
Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asian politics analyst currently at Turkey’s Ipek University, said the affair seemed to stem from a Malaysian misstep.
She said Asean countries, several of which are highly dependent on smooth trade relations with China, have been wary of commenting on the South China Sea issue ahead of a UN tribunal’s imminent ruling in a case brought by the Philippines against China.
China does not recognize the arbitration and has reacted angrily to Manila’s pursuit of legal action over the Beijing-controlled Scarborough Shoal.
“I think they (Asean) want to wait until the arbitration decision comes out before making any sort of clear joint statement as a group,” Welsh said.
But Southeast Asia expert Carl Thayer said that China appeared to have reacted to reports about the statement.
“China obviously objected to the wording of the joint statement,” said Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “This led to the Asean secretariat’s decision to rescind the earlier release.”
China claims nearly all of the strategic South China Sea and has bolstered its claim by building artificial islands including airstrips in the area, some of which are suitable for military use.
In 2012, an annual meeting of Asean foreign ministers ended in chaos and unprecedented rancor, with the Philippines accusing hosts Cambodia of blocking a strong statement accusing China of raising tensions in the region.
The gathering ended with no joint ministers’ communique for the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history.
However, in recent years Asean has hardened its language amid the Chinese island-building, while taking pains not to mention China by name.
Asean operates on a policy of consensus under which all members must agree to any joint statement.
RP delegates off to China
The Philippines had already set flights to attend the Special China and Association of Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting at Yunnan, China.
The meeting which will be between China and the 10-country member organization convened to mark the 25th anniversary of diplomatic ties between them.
According to Department of Foreign Affairs Spokesman Charles Jose, the Philippine delegates already flew out yesterday to attend the said conference.
In this meeting are Asean countries delegates including the Philippines that are mostly involved in the claim over the disputed South China Sea.
The conference was set up by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who hopes for the inclusion of talks about the sea dispute.
Known for its strong opposition to multilateral arrangements, China released a statement recently hoping that this meeting will “review and summarize the good practices in the development of China-Asean dialog relations and to map out the future development of bilateral relations.”
Backtracking on the Foreign Minister’s statement in April this year, Wang Yi slammed countries outside the region dipping its fingers in the dispute, saying, “China and Asean countries are able to jointly maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea through cooperation. Countries outside the region should play a constructive role rather than the other way round.”
China speaking figures
In a press conference, it was voiced out that the countries Sierra Leone and Kenya have shown support for China over the territorial dispute, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang said that after convening, on the “merits and demerits of the relevant issue” the two nations and tens of countries have given their support making their “voices heard to uphold justice.”
“After knowing the merits and demerits of the relevant issue, many countries, including Sierra Leone and Kenya you just mentioned and tens of countries as we told you before, make their voices heard to uphold justice. We commend and appreciate their support. This also tells us that a just cause gains great support and people with a sense of justice can tell right from wrong,” he said.
Lu Kang slammed the opposition, saying these are countries displaying disapproval on their reclamation as “attempting to sling mud at China,” adding that they “had better quit labeling themselves as “the international community” in the face of such facts.
With AFP and Joyce Rocamora