Behind the Scenes of ASEAN’s Breakdown

By Carl Thayer

[Editor’s Note: Dr. Carl Thayer is one of the distinguished scholar mavens who tracks developments in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia. His description of the widely discussed AMM meeting in Phnom Penh makes for fascinating reading. With his permission we have posted an excerpt of the account. For the full article on Asia Times Online please go here]

Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa recently conducted an intense round of shuttle diplomacy, visiting Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia in order to secure agreement on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea. When asked by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to sum up the results of his efforts he replied it was “back to business as usual”.

Natalegawa meant that he had managed to overcome the appearance of ASEAN disarray when the grouping’s foreign ministers were unable to reach agreement on four paragraphs on the South China Sea to be included in a draft joint communique to summarize the results of their meeting. The Cambodia-hosted event represented the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history that an ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) failed to agree on a joint statement.

Natalegawa stood alongside Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Hor Namhong when he issued ASEAN’s six-point statement. Hor Namhong, however, could not resist laying the blame for ASEAN’s failure to issue a joint communique on Vietnam and the Philippines, the two ASEAN countries that have clashed most openly with China on contested claims to the South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia also have disputes with China over particular bits of the maritime area.

The record of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) Retreat, however, tells a different story. According to notes of the discussions drawn up by a participant which this author has reviewed, Cambodia twice rejected attempts by the Philippines, Vietnam and other ASEAN members to include a reference to recent developments in the South China Sea. Each time Cambodia threatened that it would withhold the joint communique. The South China Sea issue was discussed during the plenary session of the AMM Retreat.

There could, however, be another meaning behind Natalegawa’s expression that ASEAN is “back to business as usual”. This second meaning could be a vague reference to China’s renewed assertiveness in seeking to exercise its jurisdiction over the South China Sea.

This has taken three forms. First, China has raised Sansha from county to prefecture level and given it administrative responsibility over the Paracel Islands, Macclesfield Bank and Spratly Islands. Indeed, Hainan provincial authorities rushed to appoint local officials to this new unit, and elections will be held to select representatives to the National People’s Congress.

Second, China’s southern Hainan province soon thereafter dispatched 30 trawlers and four escort vessels to fish in the waters in the Spratly Islands. The fleet first fished off Fiery Cross Reef before moving to Johnson South Reef, both contested areas.

Third, and most significantly, China’s Central Military Commission issued a directive establishing a military garrison in Sansha prefecture. This garrison, with its headquarters based at Woody Island, will have responsibility for national defense of an area covering two million square miles of water.

Dr. Carl A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor,  School of Humanities and Social Sciences, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy.


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