Who took the ASEAN communiqué hostage?

In the aftermath of that spectacular failure of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to issue a joint communiqué on its ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian Foreign Minister had the gall to accuse the Philippines and Vietnam of “taking the communiqué as a hostage and insisting on turning the 10-nation group to a tribunal.” Pretty strong words. But as one newspaper said in its editorial, this was a “dishonest account.” In other words, a lie.

Taking the ASEAN communiqué hostage of their bilateral issues with China must mean that Manila and Hanoi had insisted on including words representing a consensus of sorts that was not in fact reached in the meetings. But this was not the case. Manila merely insisted that the discussions on the Scarborough Shoal stand-off and the EEZ dispute between Vietnam and China be reflected for the simple reason that they were in fact discussed. No more, no less. Isn’t the joint communiqué supposed to document what transpired in the meetings?

It’s true that Manila and Hanoi tried to raise their territorial disputes with China in the Phnom Penh meetings. Why wouldn’t they? The point of these multilateral gatherings is precisely to discuss regional issues, be they bilateral or multilateral in nature. Other parties also raised issues like the Korean nuclear crisis, for instance. Heck, even Cambodia raised its territorial dispute with Thailand. But did Manila and Hanoi try to turn ASEAN into a tribunal? Far from it. The two countries’ rationale was merely to discuss the issues and to explore ways to eventually resolve them, not to resolve them pronto. Indeed, the Philippines and Vietnam didn’t make the resolution of their disputes a pre-requisite for their acceptance of a communiqué.

The fact of the matter is, if one country can be blamed for the failure of ASEAN to issue that communiqué, it should be Cambodia. This blog won’t mince words: The Cambodians acted as Chinese proxies.

To recall, the task of drafting the joint communiqué had been delegated to a committee of four Foreign Ministers: Marty Natalegawa of Indonesia, Anifah Aman of Malaysia, Albert del Rosario of the Philippines, and Pham Binh Minh of Vietnam. Secretary del Rosario’s view was that the communiqué should reflect the discussions on the South China Sea. The others didn’t find this unreasonable, and they were able to prepare the draft relatively smoothly.

But the rub is this: According to an account by Ernest Z. Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong repeatedly met his advisers upon receiving the draft communiqué, and thereafter “rejected language referring to Scarborough Shoal and the EEZ’s, even after multiple attempts to find a compromise.” Bower further claimed that substantiated reports by those present in the meetings indicate that “Cambodian officials shared drafts of the proposed joint statement with Chinese interlocutors.”

In other words, the Cambodians consulted their Chinese friends first before expressing their disapproval of the wordings of the communiqué, and they didn’t even make room for compromise. Even after the Philippines agreed to an Indonesian suggestion to change the wording to “affected shoal”, the Cambodians didn’t budge. Now, who took the ASEAN communiqué hostage?

“The host should have played a bigger role, but he didn’t,” an anonymous ASEAN diplomat told Reuters. But why would he? China has been lavishing Cambodia with high-profile economic and military aid– even the gleaming Peace Palace where ASEAN meetings were held was built with Chinese funds. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out who takes orders from whom.

Now, analysts in different capitals are pointing out that the failure of ASEAN to issue a joint communiqué undermines ASEAN as a bloc, and therefore works for China’s favor in the long term. I agree. But more than that, the failure at Pnom Penh represents an immediate and concrete strategic victory for China that many are not discussing.

Unknown to many, ASEAN has reportedly finished a draft containing possible elements of a code of conduct for parties in the South China Sea. The contents of this draft have not been revealed, but, according to Prof. Donald K. Emmerson of Stanford University, there is reason to believe that the draft code includes binding dispute-settlement mechanisms, which means that it could bind China against acting with impunity in the South China Sea, as it has been doing lately.

The problem is that without a joint communiqué to hail the drafting of the code as a diplomatic milestone, the draft would not have any official recognition and can therefore be easily dismissed by China as a useless white paper. Had the draft been enshrined in the communiqué, it would have been the news, not the discord between Cambodia and the Philippines; and China would have been put under pressure by world opinion to agree to the said code of conduct.

“Intentionally or not, when Hun Sen cancelled the communique, he prevented ASEAN from publicly and prominently validating the draft as the group’s official basis for negotiation,” says Professor Kemmerson.

Clearly, this has been a case of China employing its divide and conquer strategies, thanks to its friends in Phnom Penh. Indonesia is now scrambling to control the damages, dispatching its top diplomat to neighboring capitals to seek consensus. But one can bet that as long as the “ASEAN way” of decision by consensus remains, China, though its proxies, will always be successful.


4 thoughts on “Who took the ASEAN communiqué hostage?”

  1. Very interesting. This has discussed the issue in detail on what went through during the FMM. The media and other institutions were not able to discuss the proceedings like this. All they did was speculate. This is a must-read for all in order to understand the implications of these actions during the FMM. Thank you for writing about this. 😀

  2. China’s approach is becoming fairly obvious. Divide and weaken. No Asian nation alone can stand up to China.. Not even Japan or South Korea. Asean blew it big time. And there is no subtlety to the fact China has little interest in the integrity or well-being of other nations. Otherwise they would not adhere to such a ludicrous practice of drawing their border within a few miles of other nations.

  3. Comments from Gil Santos sent through e-mail:


    On hindsight, the whole recent Cambodian initiative/action in the ASEAN Regional Forum it hosted in Phnom Penh did not come as a surprise–at least to me. Just go back in the last two decades and review the developments in the former French Indo-China area (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) and one will easily find the explanation.

    Remember that the mercurial late Cambodian King Norodoom Sihanouk was a very close ally and proxy of the People’s Republic of China from the time of Mao Tse-tung. He was a frequent visitor as a patient of Chinese medical doctors in Beijing. In fact, he lived in “self-exile” in Beijing at one time in the ’60s.

    I know this first hand after I interviewed Sihanouk in Phnom Penh and Manila, covered the Thai-Cambodian Khao Preah Vihar temple dispute in 1963, and as an AP and AP-Dow Jones correspondent in the Southeast Asian area from 1961 to 1979.

    Here is my unsolicited appraisal of the nine other countries in ASEAN:

    1) those who will go along with the Philippines to push the ASEAN Code of Conduct for peaceful (translation: settlement of regional territorial disputes as a region unabashedly self-declared as a Zone of Peace, Friendship and Amity even before Cambodia joined it) settlements of disputes and guide to sovereign behavior are: Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore.

    Indonesia’s harrowing experience with China’s interference in her domestic affairs in the mid-sixties is historically indelible. On the mistaken fear that Sukarno was dying (his doctors were from “Peking”) the Partai Kommunis Indonesia led by D.N. Aidit rounded up military officers and assassinated Army Commanding General Yani and six other officers; it took the late General Suharto and his Jakrabirawa Battalion to quell the armed uprising

    Vietnam has been invaded by the Chinese but was successful in driving them back across the border. And Vietnam has a very strong sense of national unity and the military machine with successive victories over the French and the Americans from 1946 to 1975.

    Thailand, which has the biggest number of overseas Chinese in the region, is a stable Kingdom; a co-founder (with the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia) of ASEAN and firm believer in regional security and peace. It has never been colonized, although its first capital city of Ayudhtya was invaded by the Burmese in the reign of the First Rama (King) of the ruling Chakri Dynasty. (Philippine-Thai friendly relations goes back after the end of the Second World War when Manila sponsored Bangkok’s United Nations membership).

    Brunei and Singapore wealthy and stable small nation-states; both are advocates of peace, security and prosperity of the region, advocates of the Code of Conduct for ASEAN and economic cooperation.

    2) those pro-Beijing will be Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.

    Myanmar, undergoing its domestic political transformation, had been isolated from the outside world by its military junta for almost four decades after the 1962 coup led by the late army Col. Ne Win; it relied on Chinese “friendship and assistance.” She is the latest addition to the ASEAN membership because the Philippines insisted on engaging her “constructively for peace, unity and security” of this region.

    I will be pleasantly surprised if Malaysia goes along with the Philippines on this issue. Relations between Manila and Kuala Lumpur is strained by the standing (unresolved) Sabah claim of the Philippines, and the Malaysian support for the separatist-rebel Muslim groups in Mindanao. In fact diplomatic relations between them had been severed twice–in the late 50’s and the mid 70’s–due to the Sabah claim.

    But the fora for the ASEAN Code of Conduct issue does not end with the disappointing Phnom Penh ARF conference. It can still be tabled in the coming ASEAN Summit and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meetings in the last quarter of this year.

    Manila should not stop pushing the Code of Conduct issue/concept because of the Phnom Penh failure. It is in our national interests to do so; and we will have allies versus the aggressive Chinese military excursions/invasions of our national territory as guaranteed by the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Seas. China signed that too but chooses to violate it for its convenience –simply because we do not have the military force to match Beijing’s.

    Now is the time for the Philippine political leadership to assert that we are a sovereign nation; let us earn international respect. As some scholars put it: “right is might and not the other way around in this century.”

    Our national leadership must learn from the lessons of the Korean and Vietnam Wars. We sent military contributions to both these conflicts.

  4. Seems like the transition in China is not going smoothly hence the need to unify the people against outside threats. (Did the successful space launch not unify the people enough?) China has sent armed fishing fleets up and down their East Coast. They had fisherman involved in run-ins with the Russians, the South Koreans, the Japanese, the Vietnamese (?) and us over the past several months. I think a good option for Asean countries minus Cambodia of course is help make the transition even rockier than it is now. With any luck, China might implode.

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