After Kunming, Asean must be united on South China Sea at Laos meeting

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (sixth from right) and foreign ministers from ASEAN-member nations pose for a group photo during a special Asean-China foreign ministers' meeting in Yuxi, southwest China's Yunnan Province on June 14, 2016. - AFP

ON Tuesday evening, several journalists including foreign ones, were alerted by a Wisma Putra official of a statement by the Asean foreign ministers after a meeting with their Chinese colleague Wang Yi.

It was a statement issued by the ministers after a meeting in Kunming to mark the 25th anniversary of Asean-China relations, which among others spoke on preparations for the Asean-China commemorative summit in September in Laos.

It was a bit of a puzzle why the statement should come from Malaysia since Asean statements would normally be issued by the Asean secretariat in Jakarta or the current country coordinator for Asean and China relations-Singapore.

But it got the media, especially foreign media, excited anyway since the strongly worded statement touched on the hot South China Sea issue, saying there was a candid exchange with Wang Yi.

Newswire AFP ran a story quoting the statement that Asean has “serious concerns” over recent events in the disputed South China Sea.

But barely three hours later AFP ran another report saying Asean countries had retracted the same statement, adding that Malaysia said “urgent amendments” would be made.

“We have to retract the media statement by the Asean foreign ministers ... as there are urgent amendments to be made,” a Malaysian foreign ministry spokeswoman was quoted by AFP.

AFP quoted the spokeswoman as saying the Asean Secretariat approved the release of the statement, then later informed the ministry it was being retracted.

What really happened, nobody knows for sure. But the damage has been done.

Wisma Putra officials were getting calls from many foreign missions in Kuala Lumpur enquiring what had transpired at the Kunming meeting after the retraction news went viral.

But that is not the only thing that happened at that Kunming meeting.

A journalist with Channel News Asia tweeted that Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan left without speaking to the media when he was scheduled to co-chair a press conference, leaving Wang Yi to hold a solo one.

Instead the Singapore Foreign Ministry issued a separate statement saying Balakrishnan noted “the serious concerns expressed by the Asean foreign ministers over the developments on the ground and called on Asean and China to continue working together to maintain the peace and stability of the South China Sea”.

One diplomat described the Kunming meeting as “a lot of drama. Still trying to complete the jigsaw and understand where the link break up.”

Drama or not, one thing for sure the Kunming meeting proved one thing. Asean members are not speaking in unity vis a vis the South China Sea.

Wang Yi played down Balakrishnan’s absence, telling the media the meeting was good.

The Straits Times reported that Wang Yi acknowledged that China and the Philippines “have their differences” and that both countries stated their stands at the meeting.

“But this is not a problem between China and Asean and should not affect the cooperation between China and Asean,” he said. “China and Asean’s cooperation far exceeds their differences, including the South China Sea issue.”

But some officials believed that the prepared statement was retracted because Laos was not agreeable to it at the last minute.

Asean officials have already agreed on a statement, drafted by Singapore as country coordinator to relations with China, to be issued at the Kunming meeting.

“It was finalised just before the foreign ministers meeting. The idea was to issue it after the scheduled press conference. But we were informed Laos withdrew their consensus at the last minute,” said an official.

Another official felt that since the meeting was hosted by China, Asean needed to be more sensitive to Beijing since they may not like to be told on how they should behave in the South China Sea.

Asean should be concerned with these latest developments.

Already some officials fear a repeat of the Asean Foreign Ministers meeting in Cambodia in 2012.

Back then, for the first time in its 45-year history, Asean foreign ministers ended their annual meeting in Cambodia without issuing the customary joint communique – all because of disagreement over the growing assertiveness of China in the South China Sea.

That failure became headline news with fingers pointed towards several countries, including host country Cambodia.

This year Laos, which is the Asean chairman, will host the Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting in July. Laos is also known to be a strong ally to China.

“You can expect the same thing to happen in Cambodia when the ministers meet. It is dejavu,” said an official.

Perhaps Laos should be reminded  that four Asean members – Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam, are claimant states to the disputed South China Sea maritime area.

Maybe Laos needs to ensure that the Asean tradition of issuing joint communiques is not broken again and send a signal to the world that Asean is united on the South China Sea.

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