China scores diplomatic victory, avoids criticism from ASEAN

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Vientiane | Published: July 25, 2016 4:04:31 PM

China scored an unequivocal diplomatic victory today, preventing Southeast Asia's main grouping from criticising it for territorially expanding in the South China Sea...

After hectic negotiations, the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations issued a watered-down rebuke that amounted to less than a slap on the wrist, and exposed the deep divisions in a regional body that prides itself on unity. (Reuters)After hectic negotiations, the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations issued a watered-down rebuke that amounted to less than a slap on the wrist, and exposed the deep divisions in a regional body that prides itself on unity.
(Reuters)

China scored an unequivocal diplomatic victory today, preventing Southeast Asia’s main grouping from criticising it for territorially expanding in the South China Sea, even though some of the bloc’s members are victims of Beijing’s actions.

After hectic negotiations, the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations issued a watered-down rebuke that amounted to less than a slap on the wrist, and exposed the deep divisions in a regional body that prides itself on unity.

In a joint communique released after their talks, the foreign ministers of ASEAN said only that they “remain seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments” in the South China Sea. The statement did not mention China by name in referring to the developments.

Most significantly, it failed to mention a recent ruling by an international arbitration panel in a dispute between the Philippines and China that said Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea were illegal and that the Philippines was justifiably the aggrieved party.

China has dismissed the ruling as bogus, saying the Hague-based tribunal has no authority to rule on what Beijing calls bilateral disputes. China wants direct negotiations with the Philippines instead.

The tribunal’s award “amounts to prescribing a dose of wrong medicine … and it seems that certain countries outside the region have got all worked up, keeping the fever high,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, referring to the United States.

“And if the prescription is wrong it will not help cure any disease. That’s why we urge other counties in the region to lower the temperature,” he told a news conference after 90 minutes of talks with the ASEAN ministers.

Wang said about 80 per cent of that time was spent on ASEAN-China relations, and only 20 percent on South China Sea. He joked that reporters had expended more than 80 percent of the question-and-answer time on South China Sea.

“Both China and ASEAN believe this page should have been turned and temperature lowered,” he said.
China was able to push through its stance in ASEAN with the help of Cambodia, and to some extent Laos, both of which are close friends of Beijing.

ASEAN’s guiding principle is to make all statements by consensus, so a veto by Cambodia would have prevented a more stinging rebuke.

“We reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea,” the joint statement said.

“We further reaffirmed the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation,” it said.

Such statements have previously been issued, notably after an ASEAN-US summit in California in February, and have led to criticism that ASEAN is becoming a toothless organisation.

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