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Background Briefing: ASEAN Unity Restored by Shuttle Diplomacy? Carlyle A. Thayer July 24, 2012
[client name deleted] We request your assessment of “ASEAN Unity” after what happened in Cambodia last week. Q1. Was the failure to release a joint-statement after the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh last week an indication of a rift in ASEAN unity? If so, why? ANSWER: What happened at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting Retreat was the first time in forty-five years that ASEAN could not paper over differences among its members in a Joint Communique. ASEAN members have always had differing views, sometimes quite serious. Cambodia stood alone in opposing any reference to Scarborough Shoal and China’s intrusion into Vietnam’s and the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zones and continental shelves. Q2. What were the major reasons behind this failure, in your views? ANSWER: The major reason was that Cambodia, as ASEAN Chair, refused to allow any mention of Scarborough Shoal and EEZs and continental shelves. In the ministers’ discussion Cambodia twice threatened to withhold the joint communique in order to pressure Vietnam and the Philippines. Vietnam and the Philippines were supported by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. When an emergency meeting was held afterwards Indonesia and Singapore brokered a compromise that Vietnam and the Philippines agreed to. When the compromise wording was taken to Cambodia’s foreign minister he refused to consider it and walked out of the meeting. Foreign observers report that Cambodia was in close consultation with China. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Cambodia put its relations with China higher than ASEAN solidarity and unity. Q3. With his ongoing shuttle diplomacy to ASEAN countries, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa is trying to get ASEAN members closer again and save the unity among ASEAN members. Do you think his efforts will achieve successful? Why? ANSWER: Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa was successful in getting all foreign ministers to agree to “ASEAN’s Six Point Principles on the South China Sea.” This has several positive effects. It served to boost ASEAN morale after the disappointment of the previous week. It sent a reassuring message of ASEAN unity to foreign countries.
2 And it served notice on Cambodia that it could not use its role as ASEAN Chair to pursue its own agenda at the expense of other members. Q4. Despite Vietnam’s protest, the head of CNOOC [China National Overseas Oil Company] recently said that the oil bids in Vietnam-claimed waters in the South Chna Sea “is moving on well”, even with possible participation from some US companies. Do you give this report any credibility? If so why? ANSWER: I think CNOOC is playing “mind games.” I doubt that any reputable international oil company would get involved in what is a political exercise. The risk to long term investment is too great to take a chance. Also, US and Russian commercial interests in already established blocks within Vietnam’s EEZ are affected. This will arouse concern by the US and Russian governments who are likely to bring diplomatic pressure to bear on China. Q5. In your opinion, what should ASEAN members do now to resolve the difficulties they are facing? All the publicity over the failure to issue a Joint Communique has diverted attention from a more significant event. ASEAN foreign ministers approved the key elements of their Code of Conduct. ASEAN and Chinese senior officials have already held two informal meetings in Phnom Penh. After these officials agree on the modalities, formal talks are tentatively set for September. Now that all foreign ministers have agreed to the six principles they are committed to “the early conclusion” of the COC. Note too that all foreign ministers have resolved “to intensify ASEAN consultations” on a COC consistent with the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) and the ASEAN Charter. This could mean that if the majority agree ASEAN can move forward. Q6. In you opinion, what should Vietnam do now? Vietnam should obviously back the COC process to ensure that its interests are catered for. Vietnam should step up its diplomacy with its closest supporters – the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia – and reach out to the other countries like Myanmar and Brunei for support. Vietnam also needs to redouble its diplomatic liaison with key external players such as the United States, Japan, Australia, India, South Korea to ensure that the South China Sea is dealt with seriously in November at the next round of ASEAN and related summits, especially the East Asian Summit. Vietnam should not overreact to China’s elevation of Sansha to prefecture level, the creation of a military garrison on Woody Island and the dispatch of thirty fishing trawlers to the Spratly Islands. These moves are mainly symbolic, but they deserve close scrutiny. Therefore Vietnam must step up its surveillance of its EEZ.
Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “ASEAN Unity Restored by Shuttle Diplomacy?,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, July 24, 2012.