China Reveals Its Hand

By Ernest Bower

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.

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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.

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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.

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