China Reveals Its Hand on ASEAN in Phnom Penh

For the first time in its 45-year history, ASEAN’s foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communiqué following their annual consultations last week in Phnom Penh. It is important to understand this high profile failure. What happened? And what does it mean for ASEAN and for the strategies of the United States and other countries with strong interests in the Asia Pacific?

What Happened?

The ASEAN foreign ministers spent hours reviewing a substantive agenda that by all accounts represented the growing maturity of ASEAN and its relevance not only to its 10 member countries but to its dialogue partners from around the world. The depth and range of the discussions underlined the conclusion that ASEAN is making progress and maturing to a level where it can address the most pressing issues in the region. Its discussions last week touched on a broad array of concerns—from economic cooperation and integration to political and security alignment to social and cultural cooperation. Even politically sensitive issues such as North Korea, bilateral tensions between ASEAN countries, and the disputes in the South China Sea were fully discussed.

Problems arose when it was time to draft the joint communiqué. The Cambodian chair, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong, had delegated the drafting to a committee of four colleagues: Marty Natalegawa of Indonesia, Anifah Aman of Malaysia, Albert Del Rosario of the Philippines, and Pham Binh Minh of Vietnam. The Philippines’s view was that the communiqué should reflect that the ministers had discussed the confrontation between the Philippines and China at Scarborough Shoal and Vietnam’s desire to address exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Language reflecting that fact was included in the draft submitted to the chair.

Repeatedly, however, after taking the draft under consideration, Hor Nam Hong consulted with advisers outside of the meeting room and came back rejecting language referring to Scarborough Shoal and the EEZ’s, even after multiple attempts to find a compromise. He said Cambodia’s view was that those were bilateral issues and therefore could not be mentioned in the joint statement.
Interestingly, reports—substantiated by those present—circulated that Cambodian officials shared drafts of the proposed joint statement with Chinese interlocutors. These leaks, some suggest, were from Chinese sources.

In the end, ASEAN announced there would be no joint communiqué at the end of the meetings. This was a spectacular failure for the regional grouping and an outcome that, on the surface, seemed not to be in any nation’s interests. Media reports suggested that ASEAN disunity was on display and that the regional grouping was in organizational chaos.

A Deeper Look

Superficial analyses have pointed to the weakness of ASEAN cohesion, the wide disparity between ASEAN countries, a possible political divide separating mainland and maritime Southeast Asia, and conflict between the chair, Cambodia, and the Philippines, the party seeking ASEAN’s support for what it perceives to be the “creeping assertiveness” of China.

A deeper look reveals important trends beneath the surface. In fact, what happened in Phnom Penh is a critical piece to answering questions about what China wants and what China wants to be.
Fundamentally, the chaos at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) appears to be an outcome manipulated by a China that has decided that a weak and divided ASEAN is in its national interests. Understanding that fact, and the fact that ASEAN has the capacity and commitment to overcome China’s shortsighted campaign to break its ranks, is a necessary condition for advising the policies of countries that want to advance regional structures that will promote peace, security, and prosperity in the Asia Pacific.

China apparently was surprised when Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, in his remarks opening the ASEAN meetings last week, emphasized the need for the ministers to work together to resolve disputes in the South China Sea. Consequently, it seems clear that pressure on Cambodia increased. Leading up to the ASEAN meetings, China had pushed most of the ASEAN countries hard, particularly the Cambodians, to keep the South China Sea off the ARF agenda. It has repeatedly stated it wishes to deal bilaterally with issues related to the South China Sea and does not want them discussed in multilateral forums.

However, ASEAN recognizes that its members must work together on such issues as well as advance ASEAN’s economic integration to effectively compete with regional giants such as China and India in the coming decades. ASEAN and almost all other members in the East Asia Summit recognized the importance of an increasingly unified and confident ASEAN as the foundation of new regional architecture advancing security, political, and economic dialogue, alignment, and peace and prosperity.

China has revealed its hand as an outlier on the question of ASEAN unity. It seemingly used its growing economic power to press Cambodia into the awkward position of standing up to its ASEAN neighbors on one of the most important security concerns for the grouping and its members. China’s overt role, underlined by leaks about Cambodia’s complicity in sharing drafts, seems to suggest Beijing’s hand in promoting ASEAN disunity. Thus the most important message coming from Phnom Penh is not the intramural ASEAN spat over the joint statement but, rather, that China has decided that a weak and splintered ASEAN is in its best interests.

The Way Ahead

Looking ahead, ASEAN must take a clear-eyed view of the message that China sent in Phnom Penh and redouble its efforts to stay the course its leaders laid out in the ASEAN charter—namely, to strive for political, economic, and social integration by 2015.

In next four years, ASEAN members Brunei Darussalam, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Laos will each assume responsibility for the yearlong chairmanship of the organization. China has clearly focused on these upcoming chairs: reports suggest that two of those countries were the only ones to voice support for the Cambodian chair’s efforts to keep mention of Scarborough Shoal and exclusive economic zones out of the joint statement.

ASEAN, as well as countries interested in a strong and mature ASEAN, must invest early in supporting the upcoming chairs and the process of ensuring that ASEAN as a regional organization has the institutional confidence to resist efforts by other countries to advance their own sovereign and commercial interests by undermining regional cooperation.

For the United States, this means that policy leaders need to be clear about what happened in Phnom Penh and advise the policy community, business community, and media why the message from Cambodia is not that “ASEAN is in disarray and the United States should proceed carefully and reduce its engagement and investment.” Instead, the message is that “ASEAN unity is not supported by China and the United States needs to redouble its efforts to engage and support ASEAN’s goals for integration.”

(This Commentary first appeared in the July 19, 2012, issue of Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th and K Streets.)

Ernest Z. Bower is senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Ernest Z. Bower