Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
The 49th ASEAN
Foreign Ministers' Meeting was concluded Tuesday in Vientiane, Laos, the first such meeting since the result of the South China Sea arbitration
was released earlier this month. The scene that happened in Phnom Penh four years ago did not reoccur this year.
When Cambodia hosted the meeting in 2012, foreign ministers unprecedentedly failed to produce a joint communiqué because Cambodia objected to the Philippines' proposals to include the South China Sea disputes into the statement. They just issued a joint statement over the South China Sea issue a week later.
I was then reporting the 2012 Foreign Ministers' Meeting. Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong revealed that Cambodia objected to the communiqué draft proposed by countries including the Philippines because it included the China-Philippines spat over Huangyan Island. Cambodia believed at the time that this is a bilateral dispute and should not involve the entirety of ASEAN.
The situation has changed from four years ago. As the Vientiane meeting was held right after the result of the South China Sea arbitration was released, whether the joint communiqué would mention the arbitration garnered much attention. It turns out that the document did not mention the arbitration due to Cambodia's efforts.
This is a result of China's diplomatic efforts as well as a compromise by ASEAN members to keep internal unity. The release of the communiqué should not be viewed as a concession made by claimants. In the future, they may work on bringing ASEAN as a whole to negotiate with China over the South China Sea issue.
Eight articles of the communiqué mentioned the South China Sea. This has been the most number in a communiqué since China and ASEAN issued the Declaration on Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea in 2002. This highlights how much importance ASEAN attaches to the issue.
Since 2002, every joint communiqué released after the meeting of foreign ministers has mentioned the South China Sea issue. Only two articles referred to the issue in the one in 2009. In the 2010 meeting when then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton explicitly said that the South China Sea issue concerned US interests, the number of articles was four. In 2011, the number was five, and seven in 2015.
The increase shows that ASEAN has paid growing concerns over the South China Sea feud. Although the arbitration was not mentioned in this year's communiqué, in every Foreign Ministers' Meeting that follows, how to address the issue will be troublesome, unless some progress can be made to solve the issue.
Another notable change is that in this year's communiqué, six articles mentioned ASEAN-China ties, which reviewed the achievements in past bilateral meetings that involve cooperation in trade, investment, education, tourism and culture.
But there are seven articles about ASEAN-US relations, the most prominent of which stressed cooperation between the two in coping with both traditional and non-traditional security challenges, including maritime security. This implies that ASEAN members welcome the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific and they will depend more on Washington regarding security issues in the future.
After the Foreign Ministers' Meeting, the US wooed Japan and Australia and stepped away from the meeting to issue a joint statement, urging China to stop building more military outposts in the South China Sea, to show their support for ASEAN's regional security issues.
What's certain is that the US will adopt more offshore approaches to continue to create an atmosphere to set China in a passive position and offset China's efforts in building new regional order and pushing forward regional cooperation.
Unless China and ASEAN construct a framework to solve the South China Sea issue, under which regional security can be guaranteed, third forces such as the US and Japan will continue to make a fuss about the issue.
The author is a senior editor with People's Daily, and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter at @dinggangchina