ASEAN discord blocks issuance of joint statement on sea feud

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Differences within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations prevented the 10-nation bloc from issuing a tough statement on territorial feuds in the South China Sea after a meeting hosted by China this week, a Philippine official said Thursday.

Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose told reporters the ASEAN foreign ministers’ failure to issue a joint statement after discussing the disputes with their Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, prompted half of the bloc’s member states to issue their own individual statements.

All the ministers initially agreed on the text of the joint statement, Jose said, but some may have changed their mind later, preventing it from being issued publicly.

“This is actually an ASEAN media statement that was agreed on but somewhere along the way, after the meeting ended and most of foreign ministers left, it was not issued officially,” Jose said.

In the statement, the foreign ministers expressed “serious concerns over recent and ongoing developments, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and which may have the potential to undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.”

China has opposed such language, which could provide the United States and its allies added justification to intervene in the disputes.

The disunity in ASEAN underscores the difficulty of resolving the disputes, which analysts fear could spark an armed confrontation in one of the world’s busiest sea lanes.

Founded in 1967, ASEAN decides by consensus, meaning just one member state can stall agreement on any issue. It consists of a diverse collection of governments, including U.S.-allied democracies and Chinese-aligned authoritarian states.

Four of its members — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — are locked in the territorial disputes with China and Taiwan. ASEAN also includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.

After the foreign ministers initially forged an agreement on the statement, Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry issued it to reporters, Jose said, suggesting that other member states later withdrew their approval for it to be publicly issued.

A senior Philippine diplomat said Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar withdrew their backing of the joint statement to avoid offending China, which later opposed its official issuance because of a lack of a consensus within ASEAN.

The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to discuss the sensitive issue with reporters.

Jose said it remains unclear whether the statement will no longer be officially issued, adding that amid the impasse, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam have gone ahead and released their own statements about the closed-door discussions, which took place between Wang and the ASEAN ministers on Monday to Tuesday in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming.

Asked in Beijing whether China had objected to the statement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang did not answer directly, but said Wednesday that China had been assured that it was not an official ASEAN document and had been retracted.

“If ASEAN wants to officially issue something that represents its stance, it should be agreed upon by all ASEAN members,” Lu told reporters, implying a lack of consensus within the grouping.

China has steadfastly argued that the disputes should be negotiated between Beijing and each of its rival claimants, an arrangement that would give it an advantage because of its size and clout, and would effectively shut out the United States, which it has told not to intervene in what it described as Asian disputes.

Washington has declared that the peaceful resolution of the disputes and freedom of navigation and overflight in the crucial waterway are a national interest. It has backed a Philippine move to bring the disputes with China to international arbitration, a legal step that Beijing opposes and has refused to join.

China pressed its opposition to the Philippine arbitration case during the Kunming talks, according to the Philippine diplomat.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Thursday that “when the arbitration case was raised, the Philippines’ reply underscored that arbitration is among the legal and diplomatic processes promoting the rule of law in the region and is fully consistent with … the region’s efforts to peacefully resolve the disputes in accordance with international law.”