Wednesday, June 15, 2016

ASEAN tough on China - then not

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has withdrawn a communiqué on rising maritime tensions after pressure from Beijing.

It was there—and then it wasn’t. On Tuesday evening ASEAN issued a stern statement: “We expressed our serious concerns over recent and ongoing developments, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and which may have the potential to undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.”

But, less than three hours later ASEAN retracted the document, saying that “urgent amendments” were needed.
By the end of the evening, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had made his own statement. “This isn’t an issue between China and ASEAN,” he said. “Cooperation between China and ASEAN is far greater than any specific discord, including the South China Sea dispute.”

That may be. China is ASEAN’s largest trading partner. One senior diplomat said Beijing had lobbied regional ministers intensely to make the embarrassing backtrack.
“When the dragon roars, the little countries need to stay away from the fire coming out of its mouth,” says the diplomat.

Analysts say ASEAN’s credibility has been damaged because of a lack of unity. “It really looks not only like ASEAN is in disarray but also that it lacks any backbone.”

The strategic contest in the South China Sea brings together a rising and assertive China and a U.S. that has long held sway over the Pacific.