48th ASEAN Foreign Ministerial Meeting and South China Sea – How Productive?

ASEAN

It has been interesting to look at the development of South China Sea (SCS) issue within the second and third quarter of 2015. More so during the recently concluded 48th ASEAN Foreign Ministerial Meeting. Below are some events worth recapping back.

On the 3rd of August 2015, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin stated the disputed South China Sea should not be discussed at an upcoming meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Kuala Lumpur. The issue according to China is a bilateral problem.

Notwithstanding China’s warning, on the 4th of August, new reports suggest that ASEAN members will go ahead with the South China Sea talks and the ministers will push towards the “Declaration of Conduct,”(CoC) that would provide a set of rules to avoid conflict in the contentious sea. Philippines is also considering to echo the call of United States for a halt to island-building work, military deployments and other aggressive actions that may raise further tensions in the disputed waters.

Rewinding a few weeks prior to this, the meeting in Tianjin, China – arguably can be seen as an ASEAN diplomatic breakthrough after both China and ASEAN finally agreed to proceed towards the establishment of the Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea territorial disputes. This is considering how China has been dragging its feet on the CoC discussion for years.

The climax ended when ASEAN wound up its meetings on the 6th of August and came out with a final communiqué, which mentioned “some members had serious concerns” about land reclamation in the South China Sea. While according to a senior Southeast Asian diplomat, most members of the 10-nation bloc pushed hard for a “united, comprehensive” statement on the South China Sea despite pressure from Beijing.

For a few analyst of us, the statement where its reads “some ASEAN members had serious concerns” instead of “all ASEAN members” in the communiqué is frustrating and may still indicate the peculiar old fractured ASEAN.

There is a need to re-think. If we would dissect the recent ASEAN Kuala Lumpur meeting a little deeper – some positive development exists.

For once, if we examine the determinism displayed by the entire of ASEAN members in Kuala Lumpur on SCS – one would notice a degree of solidarity and coherence on a scale that has not been seen prior. This is in stark contrast if we would compare to the ASEAN meeting in Cambodia, 2012- where the issue is totally avoided by the host. The latest South China Sea development seems to bring ASEAN to a new level of realisation on the issue at hand and with this, the need to cooperate constructively towards a practical solution. Interestingly Cambodia – ASEAN close ally of China – has also begun to change its stance slightly from avoidance to agreeing with Malaysia’s in expressing hope for a code of conduct to come into force. In Singapore – May 2015, Cambodia Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for national defence Tea Banh said the code, which Asean members are negotiating with Beijing, could guarantee the peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea.

Hence taking all the above into consideration – can the South China Sea issue be a blessing in disguise for ASEAN in terms of encouraging a stronger cooperation and a sense of togetherness?

It is still early to say or speculate but the newfound synergy can potentially be used as a catalyst towards boosting a more robust and proactive relationship between ASEAN members. ASEAN technocrats and organisational experts should cease the moment in studying the mechanics of the internal SCS communication flow and how it has produce a seemingly coherent and unified agreement across majority member states.There is a need to observe the internal coordination between ASEAN Officials and Ministerial level on SCS. The key here is- to identify how SCS as a shared concern is framed and conveyed between respective officials.

Once this is understood and documented, a SWOT analysis could be done to determine the rationale behind some of the successes and what could potentially be improved in the future.

It is exciting to observe how ASEAN will further develop its policies on SCS as a regional organisation. Nevertheless at this juncture, it seems the unfolding development in SCS has also provided a rare chance for ASEAN to conduct a case study and discover the synergy it may need – in continuing to be productive and defend the interest of South East Asia block.

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