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Vietnam Today

ASEAN issues neutral East Sea statement

Released at: 18:33, 25/07/2016

ASEAN issues neutral East Sea statement

Photos: Straits Times/Courtesy

No mention of recent ruling from The Hague in joint statement issued by ASEAN Foreign Ministers after meeting in Laos.

by Ha Nguyen

ASEAN Foreign Ministers on July 25 stressed the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities in the disputed South China Sea (East Sea), but made no mention of a recent ruling by an international tribunal.

“We … took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region,” the foreign ministers said in a joint statement issued after discussions in the Lao capital of Vientiane.

They reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security and freedom of navigation in the East Sea and reiterated the need to “enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation.”

The statement, however, did not mention the ruling on July 12 by an arbitration tribunal that rejected China’s vast claims in the East Sea in a case filed by the Philippines at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague.

China, which claims almost all of the East Sea, rejected the ruling and has been said to be pressuring members of ASEAN to prevent the bloc from taking a common position on the issue.

A joint statement by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers after a special ASEAN-China meeting in Kunming last month was released and then retracted after China reportedly put pressure on Laos and Cambodia.

All this has prompted debate on whether the bloc should reconsider its consensus-based approach, which critics say reduces it to a talk-fest. But Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith made a pitch on July 24 to retain the framework.

“I would like to reiterate that ASEAN should continue to maintain and enhance its role in the evolving regional architecture, particularly ASEAN’s centrality and the principle of moving forward at a pace comfortable to all,” PM Thongloun Sisoulith said.

International analysts, however, were not surprised by the ASEAN statement since one member, Cambodia, has protested the arbitration ruling and said it would not support the ruling or a declaration by ASEAN states or others supporting any court decision on the issue.

Mr. Murray Hiebert, Senior Adviser and Deputy Director of Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), believes Cambodia, whose government is highly dependent on Chinese aid, appears to be blocking a joint statement.

“It’s not clear Cambodia will change its mind between now and September,” he told VET. “Maybe ASEAN should consider putting out a statement by a ‘coalition of the willing’, including those countries that support a statement and thus not allow Cambodia to hold ASEAN hostage.”

Emeritus Professor Carl Thayer from the Australian Defence Force Academy also believes that ASEAN would do what it is best at doing, since it would muddle through and make a virtue out of necessity.

“ASEAN leaders recognize that the South China Sea territorial dispute cannot hold hostage the larger set of relations - economic relations in particular - that ASEAN has with China,” he told VET. “ASEAN will doggedly stick to its position of full implementation of the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and an expeditious conclusion of the Code of Conduct.”

Between now and September, when the bloc holds its annual summit, ASEAN will continue to plan for the summit and on the surface give the impression that everything is fine, according to Professor Thayer. “After all, the ASEAN Way is all about inclusive dialogue, consensus and moving at a pace comfortable to all,” he said.

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