‘Utterly irresponsible” and “extremely disappointing” is how Indonesia’s foreign minister described ASEAN’s failure yesterday to agree to the terms for a Code of Conduct on the hotly disputed South China Sea.
China effectively claims all of the resource rich waters, and this week’s ASEAN summit was supposed to be a chance for member countries to present the burgeoning superpower with the terms of a CoC guiding the pursuit of their various claims.
A frustrated Marty Natalegawa, Indonesia’s foreign minister, told reporters late yesterday they should ask the “obvious” countries why ASEAN had failed to speak with one voice and agree to a common statement, or final communiqué.
“You ask the participants why it is they are not able to speak with one voice, whether it is the Philippines, whether it is the chair, Cambodia, whoever it is,” he said.
“But I think it is utterly irresponsible that we cannot come up with a common statement on the South China Sea, this is a time when ASEAN should be seen to be acting as one.”
Four ASEAN nations including Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam, have claims over the South China Sea, but a recent flare up of the Philippines dispute with China over a group of islands known as the Scarborough Shoal has been the dominant point of tension during this week’s summit.
The Philippines has accused China of reneging on a mutual agreement – which the ASEAN nation honoured – to withdraw vessels from the disputed territory on June 15.
Philippines Foreign Minister Albert Del Rosario also left the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) plenary session frustrated, refusing to speak to reporters. Instead, he handed them a written statement slamming the “aggressive infringement” of a “powerful country” into the disputed territory.
“If left unchecked, the increasing tensions [sic] that is being generated in the process could further escalate into physical hostilities which no one wants,” the statement read.
In a clear reference to China, the statement accused an ARF “member state” of duplicity, intimidation, threats and the use of force.
On her second day at ASEAN, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she would not weigh into the dispute, but said at a press conference the US had seen some “worrisome instances of economic coercion and the problematic use of military and government vessels in connection with disputes among fishermen”.
“We believe the nations of the regions should work collaboratively and diplomatically to resolve disputes without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and certainly without the use of force,” she told reporters.
Although the US took no side in the dispute, it had “a fundamental interest in freedom of navigation, the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law and unimpeded lawful commerce”, Clinton said.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said little outside of closed doors during this week’s summit, but according to a statement posted on the Chinese embassy’s website on Wednesday, Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying said China and ASEAN had agreed to continue implementing the decade-old, non-binding Declaration of Conduct on the disputed waters.
China hoped to “be able to start a discussion on the CoC when conditions are ripe”, the statement read.
ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan downplayed the failure of the 10 ASEAN member states to reach consensus on the CoC, calling it a “hiccup”.
“They are still trying, they have not given up hope, but it takes a bit of effort – heavy lifting,” he said, adding that the tone of yesterday’s meeting had been candid and had cleared the air.
“Now we have to digest all of those things and try to find our way through the difficult waters, around the shoals . . . around the rocks.”
At the last ASEAN summit in April, even though debate raged as to whether the South China Sea was even on the agenda, the issue dominated discussions.
Cambodian officials have been highly reluctant to discuss the issue this time around.