South China Sea Talks End in Disarray as China Lobbies Laos

  • Retracted joint statement said sea spat an ‘issue’ with China
  • Individual Asean states starting to issue their own statements

China's and ASEAN foreign ministers meet in Yuxi on June 14.

Photographer: AFP via Getty Images

A meeting in China of foreign ministers from Southeast Asian nations over the South China Sea ended in confusion after Malaysia released and then retracted a joint statement  expressing “serious concerns” over developments in the disputed waterway.

The disarray raises fresh questions about unity within the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, 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 must agree on a statement before it is released.

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 while boosting its military presence. It argues 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After noting progress in ties between China and Asean, the withdrawn statement said: “But we also cannot ignore what is happening in the South China Sea as it is an important issue in the relations and cooperation between Asean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.” Until now, Asean has avoided citing China by name when calling for a lowering of tensions.

That phrase 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 ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. China has said the disputes should be handled on a bilateral basis.

Laos Lobbied

The statement reflected frustration with China over its recent actions, including efforts to pressure some Asean states, according to a Southeast Asian government official with knowledge of the discussions. 

The ministers initially agreed to the communique but it was withdrawn after China lobbied Laos, holder of the rotating Asean chair, the person said, asking not to be identified because of the confidential nature of the talks.

About three hours after it was released on Tuesday night, Malaysia said the statement needed to be retracted for urgent changes. An amended version has not been released.

An officer in the press department of the Laos foreign affairs ministry who would not give his name said by phone he was aware the statement had been retracted, but didn’t know why. He referred inquiries to the ministry’s Asean department, which didn’t answer calls. China’s trade with Laos rose nearly 20 times to $2.7 billion in the 10 years to 2015.

Timely, Important

China’s foreign ministry said some media are “hyping up” the issue in reporting the talks failed to deliver an official statement. “This is a closed door meeting,” spokesman Lu Kang said at a briefing on Wednesday in Beijing. “It is not meant to issue an official statement.”

Foreign Minister Wang Yi described the meeting as "a timely and important strategic communication,” according to a statement 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. 

Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said the statement released by Malaysia was a “media guideline” to be used during a press conference scheduled for after the meeting that was later canceled. Because some ministers had to leave immediately, there was no time to discuss how to release the guideline, he said.

‘Crazy Thoughts’

China’s 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". 

For an explainer on China’s military expansion in Asia, click here.

The Hague tribunal has been asked by the Philippines to rule on the status of features China contests as well as the legal basis of its “historic rights” claim, based on a 1940s map showing a dashed line covering around 1.4 million square miles. A ruling seen as unfavorable to Beijing would undermine its claims.

U.S.-China Rivalry

The U.S., which says it doesn’t take a position on the disputes, has since October last year sailed warships three times near China’s artificial islands to demonstrate the right to transit what it considers international territory. The tensions go to the heart of a strategic rivalry between the U.S., overseer of the region’s security network for decades, and a rising China intent on becoming the region’s dominant power.

Both have sought to gather support in the lead-up to the arbitration decision, with diplomats and officials visiting a number of Asean nations. China claims the support of countries as varied as Russia, Gambia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Still, Group of Seven leaders expressed concern about instability in the South China Sea at a meeting in Japan last month.

Asean has a history of struggling to agree on communiques amid disagreement over wording on the South China Sea. China is the largest trading partner for the grouping.

Cambodia Veto

Defense ministers from the bloc were unable to agree on a 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.

Singapore’s foreign ministry said in a statement late Tuesday that Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan “noted the serious concerns expressed by the Asean foreign ministers over the developments on the ground” in the South China Sea. 

A ministry spokeswoman said Balakrishnan, who co-chaired the meeting, left Kunming Tuesday. Thailand’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to questions on whether it planned its own statement.

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