ASEAN talks fail, no joint statement

By Angela Goh

For the first time in the history of ASEAN, it has failed to reach a consensus on a joint communiqué at the 45th ASEAN Foreign Minister’s Meeting in Phnom Penh, according to media reports.

ASEAN diplomats failed to reach common ground on 13 July on how to deal with a touchy territorial dispute involving China and the failure to issue a statement underscores deep divisions within ASEAN amid conflicting territorial claims in the resource-rich South China Sea involving four of its members plus China and Taiwan.

ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said the Philippines and Vietnam wanted the statement to include a reference to a recent standoff between China and the Philippines at a shoal in the South China Sea claimed by both countries. AP reported that the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs issued a statement lambasting host Cambodia, a close ally of China, for “consistently opposing any mention of the Scarborough Shoal at all” and for announcing that a joint communique cannot be issued.

ASEAN had announced earlier in the week that they had drafted a code of conduct for the disputed South China Sea. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who attended the forum, had encouraged the development. A concluding communiqué is typically issued at the end of such summits and used as final records of the events.

Reaction from ASEAN diplomats
The failure to achieve a record of decisions at the summit means that ASEAN won’t be able to proceed on some of the action points it agreed to, such as proceeding with a joint institute for peace and reconciliation to be located in Jakarta, AP reported Surin as saying.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who played a key role trying to broker a compromise, expressed “deep, profound disappointment” at the lack of consensus within the bloc.

He said it was “irresponsible” that ASEAN nations have not come up with a common statement. “Whenever there are incidents, that’s actually the moment that we should reinforce our efforts, not be grinding to a halt”, said Natalegawa. “This time last year we had a similar problem between Cambodia and Thailand – it was a more direct intra-ASEAN conflict, but it was not impossible to find a solution within ASEAN”.

Channel News Asia reported Singapore’s foreign minister K Shanmugam, who attended the grouping’s meeting, as saying it was extremely disappointing, and that it had put a severe dent on ASEAN’s credibility. “The question is whether we can come up with a consensus or form of reflecting a desire to move forward on these issues in a way that is win-win for everyone. That’s really what it is. It is sad that we are not even able to agree on that. We talk about ASEAN centrality, ASEAN neutrality, ASEAN connectivity, ASEAN community in 2015, but before all of that, is the central issue of credibility”.

The breakdown is seen as a setback for the group as it tries to gain more respect in the international community, noted analyst comments gathered from the media.

“I think it’s a major embarrassment for the organisation”, said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

“Cambodia is showing itself as China’s stalking horse. This will make negotiating a final code of conduct with China more difficult”, said Southeast Asia expert Carl Thayer. “I find it difficult to believe that ASEAN foreign ministers cannot come up with some formulation that satisfies all parties”.

It may also mark a setback for the US’ agenda in the region, which includes efforts to bolster ASEAN so that it can more effectively resist China’s expanding influence in the region.

The diplomatic breakdown is a troubling sign for a bloc that is pursuing plans to create a regional economic community by 2015, featuring fewer barriers to trade, streamlined customs procedures, freer flows of labour and closer integration of regional financial markets.

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