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.