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A war of words: the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting aftermath

The ASEAN Foreign Ministers (AMM) meeting from 23-26 July in Laos failed to reference The Hague 12 July arbitral award that ruled China’s claims in the South China Sea as illegal. Following this Chinese triumph, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in full swing:

'It seems like certain countries from outside the region have got all worked up keeping the fever high'.

The deliberate and not so subtle reference to the US as a ‘certain country’ from outside the region coupled with the rhetoric of ‘keeping the fever high’ denotes China’s antagonism towards outside interference in the South China Sea maritime disputes. This targeted and emotionally infused statement from Wang Yi demonstrates his often-undiplomatic aura and moreover the power struggle between China and the US and its allies in the region. Wang’s statement also sheds light on China’s position towards the illegitimacy of the 12 July Hague ruling, where Chinese state media labelled the Permanent Court of Arbitration a ‘puppet’ of external forces.

The ASEAN joint communiqué on the 26 July echoed apprehension over the South China Sea dispute. It stated that ‘we remain seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments’, whilst simultaneously failing to mention The Hague international arbitration ruling or naming China in the communiqué at all. Without any mention of the 12 July Hague ruling in favour of the Philippines, the AMM summit is a victory for China, who hold that maritime disputes in the South China Sea should be settled bilaterally.

The absence of any mention of The Hague ruling in a joint communiqué showed the weakness of ASEAN as a bloc and the growing influence of China, particularly in Cambodia. Cambodia’s blocking of any reference to The Hague ruling is no surprise, rather it is a contemporary pattern evidenced by Cambodia’s obstruction to a joint communiqué on the South China Sea issue in 2012.

Whilst China contends that a US$600 million dollar aid delivery to Cambodia has no strings attached, according to John Ciorciari from the University of Michigan, significant investment and aid in the region has benefited the geopolitical interests of Beijing. According to Ciorciari, aid to Cambodia has helped shape ASEAN communiqué’s in the language of Beijing’s vested interests. The triumph of Chinese interests in both 2012 and in this week’s AMM point towards what Ernest Z. Bower writing for the Centre of Strategic and International Studies argued: ‘China’s promotion of a splintered ASEAN’ for strategic interests. Although Bower’s contention dates back to 2012, his analysis provides an important window into how the watered down language of the ASEAN joint communiqué and China’s influence over Cambodia is a prominent soft power tool in the repertoire of Beijing’s arsenal.

With the ASEAN communiqué failing to reference The Hague ruling, foreign ministers from the US, Japan and Australia meeting on the sidelines of the talks in a joint statement expressed opposition to ‘unilateral actions that affect the status quo’ in the South China Sea. This was followed by the call for an international based order with ‘China and the Philippines to abide by the arbitral award of 12 July in the Philippines-China arbitration’. The language at the heart of this joint statement was perceived as divisive and antagonising in the eyes of Beijing.

Firing back, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi heavily criticised the trilateral statement, condemning the US, Japan and Australia as ‘fanning the flames’, accompanied by an equally incensed statement stating that ‘now is the time to test whether you are peacemakers or troublemakers’. These fighting words from Wang Yi depict how the South China Sea is an arena in which Beijing will not easily retreat and the ‘troublemakers’ in the region will only intensify the possibility of conflict.

Whether the 12 July Hague ruling is legitimate or not, with China’s triumph at the ASEAN Foreign Minister’s meeting, the ball is once again in Washington’s court.

Thomas Penfold holds a Master of International Relations from the University of Melbourne, has worked in Laos and is interested in international security and global political risk.

Image credit: Kremlin RU (Kremlin Wiki: Commons)

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