Asean’s disunity undermines its centrality

by  Thitinan Pongsudhirak / June 21, 2016 / Straitstimes

The confused statements coming out from the recent Asean-China foreign ministers’ meeting highlights an Asean in disarray. But big powers should also realise that a strong Asean is good for regional stability, and for themselves too.

One thing is clear from the confusion and controversy arising from the recent special meeting between Asean and Chinese foreign ministers in Kunming: South-east Asia’s premier organisation is structurally split over its divergent territorial interests.

While the facts are still being debated in Beijing and South-east Asian capitals, Asean foreign ministers did produce a media statement from their meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The meeting, held at a lakeside resort in Kunming in China’s south-western Yunnan province, was organised partly to review and build on 25 years of Asean-China dialogue relations.

The statement included Asean’s concerns on the South China Sea in no uncertain terms. In view of China’s disagreement, a decision was made that Asean, which was to have been represented by Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan as co-chair of the meeting with Mr Wang, would not attend any joint press briefing as it would be rude to disagree with the Chinese minister in public. Singapore is the current country coordinator for Asean-China relations.

Instead, the statement was released by individual Asean members, led by Malaysia. Controversy ensued at this juncture both because of China’s manoeuvre to scupper Asean’s South China Sea position and because Asean members themselves did not have their act together on how to convey their mutually agreed written position.

The upshot is that Asean is again seen as divided, reminiscent of Cambodia’s rotational chairmanship in 2012 when the 10-member grouping failed to come up with a joint statement for the first time after its summit of foreign ministers. When it comes to the South China Sea, China is doing the dividing in Asean.


Underlying differences exist in individual Asean member countries’ approaches to the South China Sea issue. Larger maritime Asean states, particularly the Philippines, are more confrontational towards China’s wide-ranging claims in the South China Sea. Read more…



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