ASEAN Regional Forum: Failure on the South China Sea, Joint US-EU Statement on Asia

Updated On: Jul 16, 2012

ASEAN meetings fail to produce statement on COC

For the first time in the history of ASEAN, a joint communique was not released following closing of this years Foreign Ministers’ meeting. The heart of the dispute lay with the inability of the participants to come to an agreement regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea. No consensus was reached on a Code of Conflict largely because China refused to discuss the matter, as they wanted to deal with issues on a country-country to basis. 

Dr. Evelyn Goh, SIIA Associate Fellow and professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, said it was "disturbing" that an agreement could not be reached:"ASEAN itself had apparently agreed on some key points of the putative Code of Conduct featuring references to United Nations Charter provisions for conflict resolution and to existing international maritime law. Thus, the failure to issue a communique did not stem from the inability to find some minimal agreement among ASEAN states. It arose instead from a disagreement about whether ASEAN could, after China had flatly refused to discuss the issue in the multilateral setting, issue a collective ASEAN statement to articulate even minimum principles such as freedom of navigation or the peaceful resolution of conflicts in the South China Sea.

On one side of this divide are some ASEAN states which did not feel they could assert the Association’s autonomy in the face of Chinese objections, while on the other side range some members incensed by China’s assertive behaviour and encouraged by U.S. political and military support to insist on a tougher ASEAN stance against China. In hewing to their respective positions, both sides not only blocked an ASEAN communique for the first time, but also threaten to regress ASEAN-China diplomacy on the South China Sea disputes back to the deadlock prior to the 2002 Declaration of Conduct."

Disappointment was widespread among Ministers, not only with China but also with Cambodia, the host and current ASEAN chair, who was seen as “siding” with China during attempted negotiations. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, Mr. Marty Natalegawa, said the inability to create a Code of Conduct was “utterly irresponsible” of ASEAN, and projected a poor image of the Association. Singapore Foreign Minister Shanmugam also expressed his concerns: "To put it bluntly, it is a severe dent on ASEAN's credibility. We talk about issues in the world in past communiques, but we are unable to deal with something that's happening right here in the neighbourhood and say something about it".

While Singapore does not have a claim on the disputed territory, Singapore Foreign Minister Shanmugam explained how other ASEAN countries such as Singapore have a stake in resolving the issue: "the international political environment is one where the rules are often unclear between big and small countries. We are a small country and for us the more rules of engagement and a structured framework within countries particularly in the region have to operate, the better it is for us. Otherwise, the smallest country on the totem pole would be left without rules.”

There is speculation that the unsuccessful outcome of the Meeting gives ASEAN and China an excuse to openly express their frustration over the issue. The lack of agreement, however, heightens international tensions as ASEAN countries now have a vested interest in proving their legitimacy as an institution. A number of incidents that took place in disputed waters this past weekend highlight the need for a Code of Conduct.

China frees stranded frigate

Early Sunday morning a Chinese navy ship became stranded at Half Moon Shoal in the disputed waters of the South China Sea while conducting a routine patrol. Manila sent a rescue group to the site, and the ship was released quickly with only minor physical damage. 

The Philippines’ jurisdiction extends 200 nautical miles off the shoreline, as stipulated by international law for all countries with coastline. Half Moon Shoal was roughly 90 nautical miles from the nearest island of Palawan. While the incident was resolved civily, the timing of the incursion into the Philipinnes’ terriotory was unfortunate following the disappointment of the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.  

China fishing fleet arrives at Spratlys

Shortly after the vessel was extricated from the Half Moon Shaol, a fleet of about 30 Chinese fisherman from the Hainan district landed on the disputed waters of Spratly. The trip is one taken annually, and the group generally spends up to 10 days in the area.The group is significantly larger than in previous years, and it being guarded by a Chinese provision ship.

On Monday the Philippines warned the fleet to steer clear of the islands, releasing a statement asking China to "respsect the sovereign rights of the Philippines" to the area. The area where the fleet has arrived, however, is specifically claimed by Vietnam, and there is speculation that the arrival of the fleet is a gesture aimed at Vietnam rather than the Philippines. 

While the incidents this weekend were relatively non-threatening incursions compared to past stand offs , it signals the increasing boldness of China into entering these waters, which is in violation of a genearly 2002 agreement that no country would enter disputed waters. The confrontations in the region are cyclical, and representatives from the Philippines seem to expect more small incidents like this to increase as a new wave of tension rises.

Report: ASEAN summit fails to agree on concluding joint statement [Channel NewsAsia, 3 July 2012]

Report: China frigate heads home, averts South China Sea standoff [Reuters, 15 July 2012]

Report: Big China fishing fleet arrives at disputed Spratyls [Channel NewsAsia, 16 July 2012]

Closer EU-US Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific – Through the ARF?

Amid the media reports over the failure of ASEAN to produce a statement at the end of last week's meetings, due to disagreements over the South China Sea, SIIA Senior Fellow Dr. Yeo Lay Hweenotes there was a possible significant development in regional politics that has not been widely reported.

"What was of interest, but perhaps not noticed in the whole saga over the South China Sea, was the bilateral meeting between Hillary Clinton and Catherine Ashton on the sidelines of ARF, and the joint statement that US and EU issued on the Asia-Pacific region."

Dr. Yeo, who is also Director of the EU Centre in Singapore, explained: "In this joint statement, the US and EU agreed to closer consultation on Asia-Pacific issues, signalling a potential joining up of 'Western' interests and increased cooperation on 'political, economic, security and human rights issues in the Asia-Pacific region'."

The European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, has visited ASEAN twice this year. She co-chaired the 19th ASEAN-EU Ministerial meeting in Brunei in April and returned to the region in July to attend the Post-Ministerial Conference and the 19th ASEAN Regional Forum.

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