Why It Matters

Asean meeting's powerful signal

For just the second time in Asean's five-decade history, a ministerial meeting on Wednesday ended without a joint statement being issued by the 10-member regional bloc.

The Asean Defence Ministers Meeting's (ADMM) failure to reach a consensus comes off the back of the United States' insistence that it will continue to regularly patrol the South China Sea despite anger from Beijing over Washington's move last week to sail a warship within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands that China is building in disputed waters.

Both countries are among the dialogue partners that form the ADMM-Plus, a forum of stakeholders in Asia-Pacific security issues, the most thorny of which is the overlapping claims between some Asean states and China over parts of the South China Sea.

It is telling that the only other time Asean failed to issue a joint communique was at a 2012 foreign ministers' meeting, where the resource-rich sea was also the cause of the breakdown. It is a setback for the credibility of the "Asean way" of slow and steady consensus-building, although some say it was already undermined by the lack of progress on a Code of Conduct to govern dispute resolution over one of the world's most important shipping lanes. While Asean and China had agreed 13 years ago to establish the set of rules, negotiations have since made little headway.

But the Asean defence meeting was also a powerful signal to Beijing that it will not have it all its own way and be able to bully South-east Asian nations reliant on trade with the Asian giant.

Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen was among those who did not feel the sky had fallen because of a lack of a joint statement. He said: "To get 18 defence ministers to agree on everything all the time is probably not a true reflection of world affairs. What is important is that we go back, reflect and respect the views (raised by other nations) and see how we can find common ground."

All eyes will now be on the Asean summit in two weeks, with US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping attending.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2015, with the headline 'Asean meeting's powerful signal'. Print Edition | Subscribe