ASEAN softens stance as US belatedly beckons

By Frank Ching

What a difference a year makes. Last year, at the 29th ASEAN summit in Laos, a Chairman’s Statement, without mentioning China, “took note of concerns expressed by some Leaders 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 area.” While the leaders of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations were careful not to criticize China by name, they let it be known that Chinese actions had eroded trust and raised tensions. But even such subdued voicing of concern over Chinese actions was missing from this year’s statement, issued Sunday in Manila after the 30th summit was held under the chairmanship of the Philippines.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who assumed office last summer, visited Beijing in October and there dramatically announced “my separation from the United States.”

Since then, he has gone to great lengths to woo China. Duterte announced that he would not mention in the Chairman’s Statement a ruling by a Hague arbitral tribunal that rebuked China for its construction of artificial islands and found its claims to sovereignty over the waters without legal merit. The case was brought by Duterte’s predecessor. Since then, China has succeeded to a large extent in taming ASEAN, especially when the new Trump administration flailed about aimlessly, neglecting Southeast Asia. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman in January said, “Countries that have disputes with China over the South China Sea have come to an agreement with us that these disputes should be peacefully resolved through consultation and negotiation with parties directly concerned …This hard-won situation is worth cherishing.” The Chairman’s Statement last weekend underwent several drafts and, it seems clear, China successfully brought its influence to bear. An earlier draft included mention of land reclamation and militarization. However, both terms are absent from the final statement.

Agence France-Presse reported that the Chinese embassy had asked Manila not to mention international law and to remove the phrase “respect for legal and diplomatic processes,” which could be taken to refer to the arbitral ruling. The phrase was removed from the section on the South China Sea, but it appears in the section on “ASEAN Community Building and the Way Forward.” ASEAN is marking its 50th anniversary this year.