July 28, 2012
The ASEAN Ministerial and Related Meetings
by Rodolfo C. Severino, 24 July 2011
As expected, the media and other observers eagerly watched for statements from the ASEAN and ASEAN Regional Forum foreign ministers on developments in the South China Sea. They waited in particular to gauge the belligerence with which the U. S. Secretary of State would assert her country’s interest in those developments and the vehemence with which the Chinese foreign minister would press China’s claims in the area.
In any case, it is clear that the ASEAN ministers were intensely pre-occupied by the subject. Their joint communiqué stresses that they “discussed in depth the recent developments in the South China Sea” (italics mine).
As they do every year, the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, gathered on 19 July to review the state of the region and the world and, not least, of ASEAN itself, particularly as it unfolded in the past year, and map out the association’s future course. This time, it was on the Indonesian resort-island of Bali, Indonesia being in ASEAN’s chair this year.
As in years past, they were joined afterwards by their counterparts from ASEAN’s ten “Dialogue Partners” – Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States.
Then, on 23 July, as every year since 1994, the ministerial meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum, participated in by ASEAN’s member-states, its Dialogue Partners and seven other governments, took place.
On the South China Sea, progress of sorts was made, with the adoption by ASEAN and Chinese senior officials of the “guidelines” for the implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, a document that ASEAN and Chinese ministers subsequently “formally endorsed”.
Nevertheless, ASEAN insisted that the South China Sea issue, contrary to Chinese preference for discussions with individual claimants, was a matter for China and ASEAN as a whole, with ASEAN ministers and officials undertaking consultations among themselves before facing China. The ASEAN ministers’ joint communiqué refers twice to “discussion in ASEAN on a regional Code of Conduct in the South China Sea” (italics mine). It also talks about “dialogue between ASEAN and China” on the South China Sea.
The ARF, and specifically the U. S., “welcomed” the guidelines (they were formally adopted only after the meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers, whose joint communiqué is, therefore, silent on it). However, how ”momentous and historic”, in the words of ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, or how “very important”, in those of Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, the document is will depend on how it is carried out.
For example, there is no indication that the guidelines further define the concept of “self-restraint”, committed to in both the 1992 ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea and the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on Conduct, but often violated in recent times. Nevertheless, the adoption of the guidelines seems to be a step forward.
As always, for ten years at least, the situation in Myanmar was the focus on attention, especially at this AMM/PMC/ARF, which was the first to take place since the November 2010 general elections and the installation of a new political regime in March 2011.
Both ASEAN and the ARF heard briefings from the new Myanmar foreign minister, but ASEAN apparently arrived at no decision on Myanmar’s proposal to assume the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014, something that it had foregone in 2007. The joint communiqué’s statement on the matter was obviously the result of a compromise. It speaks of the ASEAN ministers considering it “positively” followed immediately by “based on its (Myanmar’s) firm commitment to the principles of ASEAN”. In any case, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa is scheduled to visit Myanmar ostensibly to assess that country’s readiness for the ASEAN chairmanship.
None of the series of ministerial meetings produced a document that refers to the fact that in 2012 Myanmar is scheduled to take over as country coordinator for ASEAN’s dialogue with the U. S., a delicate subject indeed.
Timor-Leste and Cambodia-Thailand
Another important decision on which the ASEAN ministers failed to arrive at a common recommendation was on Timor-Leste’s application for ASEAN membership. The ASEAN joint communiqué is totally silent on it, while the ARF chairman’s statement simply takes note of Timor-Leste’s “intention” and ASEAN’s consideration of it.
Another obvious result of a compromise was the ASEAN joint communiqué’s reference to the border clashes between Cambodian and Thai troops. It recognises Thailand’s preference for bilateral talks by alluding to “the fullest utilization of their existing bilateral mechanism”, but adding, “with appropriate engagement of Indonesia, current Chair of ASEAN”, a bow to Cambodia’s preferences. At the same time, the document links Indonesia’s efforts to the attainment of the ASEAN Community.
While the rulings of the International Court of Justice on the issue, handed down on 18 July, apparently came too late to be taken into account in the joint communiqué, the ARF chairman’s statement reiterates with approval the World Court’s decisions.
Incidentally, in the transition between governments in Bangkok, Thailand was represented in the series of meetings by Chitriya Pinthong, deputy permanent secretary of the Thai foreign ministry and acting ARF senior official for Thailand.
Regional Economic Integration
Although the ASEAN foreign ministers renewed their commitment to intra-ASEAN economic integration, they were silent on the specific political obstacles to the implementation of measures designed to accelerate the region’s economic integration.
The foreign ministers’ commitment “to integrate our commitments into national policies and programs” is, of course, most welcome. Whether their governments will actually do so remains to be seen. Perhaps, the incorporation of regional commitments in “national policies and programs” should be made part of the ASEAN Economic Ministers’ public scorecard.
Rodolfo C. Severino, a former ASEAN Secretary-General, is head of the ASEAN Studies Centre, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.