Ministers tight-lipped as Asean tries to craft joint position

(From left) Malaysian Foreign Ministry Secretary-General Othman Hashim; Myanmar State Councillor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi; Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan; Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai; and Vietnamese Deputy Prime
(From left) Malaysian Foreign Ministry Secretary-General Othman Hashim; Myanmar State Councillor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi; Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan; Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai; and Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh at the Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Vientiane yesterday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Indonesia calls for self-restraint amid concerns that S. China Sea issue may delay communique

As Asean foreign ministers tried to bolster unity amid discord within the grouping over how to manage the South China Sea issue, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi was the first top envoy from the bloc to speak to reporters.

Yesterday, and earlier on Saturday after a special late-night meeting ahead of yesterday's formal talks, she told the media that the traditional joint communique that follows each foreign ministers' meeting was still being drafted.

She added that Indonesia has called for respect of international law. "We underline the importance of peace and stability. And we urge all parties, without exception… to exercise self-restraint," she said.

Her counterparts have remained tight-lipped over what diplomats described as difficult negotiations over how the South China Sea should be mentioned in the draft communique.

Ms Retno's remarks yesterday raised fears that the South China Sea issue may derail the communique as it did in Phnom Penh in 2012.

 

China, Taiwan and the Asean states of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have competing claims in the resource-rich sea.

China has rejected a July 12 Arbitral Tribunal ruling on a case initiated by Manila, which invalidated its claims and pressured its allies in Asean to prevent the bloc from taking a common position on the issue.

A joint statement by Asean foreign ministers after a special Asean-China meeting in Kunming last month was released and then retracted after China reportedly put pressure on Laos and Cambodia.

All this has prompted debate on whether the bloc should relook its consensus-based approach, which critics say reduces it to a talk shop.

But Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith made a pitch to keep this framework at the opening ceremony yesterday, saying: "I would like to reiterate that Asean should continue to maintain and enhance (Asean's) role in the evolving regional architecture, particularly Asean's centrality, Asean's way and the principle of moving forward at a pace comfortable to all."

Last year, when Malaysia chaired Asean, negotiations over the joint communique dragged to the end of a three-day series of high-level meetings, which included the Asean Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit foreign ministers' meeting.

The eventual seven-paragraph section on the South China Sea in last year's statement noted that ministers had discussed the issue "extensively" and "remain seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments in the area".

Today, Asean foreign ministers will begin talks with their counterparts from the United States, China and other regional dialogue partners.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, when asked yesterday whether he would hold discussions with his Philippine counterpart Perfecto Yasay on the sidelines of these talks, said: "We shall see. It depends on the willingness of both sides."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2016, with the headline 'Ministers tight-lipped as Asean tries to craft joint position'. Print Edition | Subscribe