A meeting in China involving foreign ministers from Southeast Asian nations over the South China Sea has ended in confusion after Malaysia released and then retracted a joint statement that expressed “serious concerns” over developments in the disputed waterway.
The disarray raises fresh questions about unity within the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over the issue, ahead of an international court ruling on a Philippine challenge to China’s claims to more than 80 percent of the waterway. ASEAN operates on consensus, which means all members need to agree on a statement before it is released.
So far ASEAN has avoided citing China by name in prior statements calling for a lowering of tensions over the area. China’s claims criss-cross those by nations including the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia, and it has reclaimed thousands of acres of land in the area in recent years while boosting its military presence. It has argued that the disputes in the waters that handle more than $5 trillion of trade a year have nothing to do with its relationship with ASEAN.
After noting progress in ties between China and ASEAN, the withdrawn statement added: “But we also cannot ignore what is happening in the South China Sea as it is an important issue in the relations and cooperation between ASEAN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.”
That phrase in the statement is “a direct rebuke to China’s position that the dispute is not a matter between ASEAN and China,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
China’s foreign ministry in April said after a meeting with Laos, Cambodia and Brunei that the countries agreed the disputes “are not an issue between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and should not affect China-ASEAN relations.”
ASEAN has a history of struggling to agree on joint communiques because of disagreement over wording regarding the South China Sea. China is the largest trading partner for the ASEAN grouping.
Defense ministers from the bloc were unable to agree on a final declaration after a meeting in Kuala Lumpur in November. In August foreign ministers struggled to reach consensus on the matter, releasing a statement hours after the end of a three-day meeting.
In 2012, ASEAN failed to reach common ground on the South China Sea issue, ending a regional conference without a joint statement -- the first in its 45-year history. After the meeting collapsed, Cambodia denied it had fallen prey to pressure from China to avoid raising the issue in the statement. China had warned nations beforehand to not mention the territorial spats.
About three hours after the Kunming statement was released, Malaysia said it needed to be retracted to make urgent amendments. An amended statement has yet to be released.
Instead, Singapore’s foreign ministry said in a separate statement late Tuesday that Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan “noted the serious concerns expressed by the ASEAN foreign ministers over the developments on the ground” during the meeting over the South China Sea.
A ministry spokeswoman said Balakrishnan, who co-chaired the meeting, had left Kunming Tuesday. Thailand’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to questions on whether it planned its own statement.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described the meeting as "a timely and important strategic communication,” according to a statement posted late Tuesday on the ministry’s website.
"There is more cooperation than disagreement in the China-ASEAN relationship, and more opportunities than challenges, more unity than friction," Wang was quoted as saying.
Still, state-run tabloid the Global Times published an editorial Wednesday with the headline: "ASEAN slapped China in the face over South China Sea? Western media’s crazy thoughts". It said there was no formal joint statement from the meeting, and any such communique would require all parties to approve it.