Meetings of ASEAN ministers are normally fairly soporific affairs. The organisation's consensus way of making decisions and a strong desire to avoid the diverging interests of its members embarrassing one another or worse creates a dull agenda. When those meetings are with external interlocutors, through the various 'plus' processes, this is doubly so. The emphasis put on process and the desire to maintain ASEAN unity can create a stiflingly dull environment.
There was no chance that the ASEAN-China foreign ministers’ summit, recently held in Kunming, was going to follow the normal script. When the ASEAN ministers signalled in advance that they not only wanted to talk about the South China Sea but planned to issue a statement on a unified position — the proverbial frank and full exchange of views — an upset was likely. And thus it transpired.
Few would have expected Southeast Asian countries, both claimants and non, would push back on China's activities with quite the strength that has been reported, or that the pre-cooked statement on the ASEAN position would be released and then retracted. The normal ASEAN way of doing thing — dull, efficient and procedural — was replaced by a good deal of colour and movement. According to various media reports, Malaysia's foreign ministry had prepared the statement prior to the meeting, had indicated as much to China, and Beijing had not objected. The statement's precise purpose is now unclear, but it was released and then hastily withdrawn. Key foreign ministries, that of China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have all issued various statements trying to put their respective spin on the statement's content, as well as the retraction.
So what have we learned from these events?
Most obviously, China's actions show it has not really changed its basic strategy toward ASEAN in relation to the dispute. Since 2009, it has concentrating on wedging the membership, particularly by influencing the poorer non-claimants to marginalise the institution. But, as is now clear, the return on that strategy is not what it once was. China seems to have underestimated the extent to which key ASEAN members are frustrated by its behaviour. It also seems genuinely surprised by its inability to corral both the events and the narrative in the manner to which it is accustomed to at home.
China has long tried to convince both claimants and ASEAN that the dispute relates to discrete bilateral disagreements and is therefore not something of pertinence to ASEAN-China relations in their entirety. The non-statement shows China is losing this battle. The ASEAN foreign ministers did not just generally push back on China’s behaviour but, as revealed in the non-statement, they were collectively rejecting China's framing of the dispute, instead presenting it as an issue that is damaging ASEAN and China relations. The reason for the statement's retraction, of course, is that this was a bridge too far for several members, most obviously Laos and Cambodia. But the marker has been laid down and China may yet succeed where others have failed by generating a genuinely unified ASEAN position on the South China Sea.
The meeting also reminds us that the South China Sea dispute is testing the efficacy of the old ways of managing Asia's international order. Indeed, in many respects it shows that the old order, centred around US primacy and consensus among Asia's states about the basic rules and purpose of that order, is dying — if it is not already dead. Asia has returned to a period of contestation, not only about who owns which features in the South China Sea, but about the underlying structure and purpose of region's international order.
Most crucially, those, like Australia, which have a big stake in the prevailing order, must not take comfort from China's growing isolation in the region, evidenced last week in Kunming. The hardening of positions, between those that benefit from the status quo, and a China which wants to change it, makes the likelihood of contest becoming conflict that much greater. And that is an outcome we must work hard to avoid.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Abhisit Vejjajiva