The View From Asia

Spoken and unspoken messages in the Asean Summit statement

Asean leaders at the opening ceremony of the 30th Asean Summit in Manila, Philippines, on April 29, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

Asia News Network commentators share their views on the Asean Summit statement and its likely implications on important relationships. Here are excerpts:

Not enough

Philippine Daily Inquirer,

The language of the Chairman's Statement issued at the end of the 30th Asean Summit held in the Philippines was disappointing, but it wasn't a total loss.

The statement did not highlight the historic arbitral tribunal ruling on the South China Sea, which gave a small country like the Philippines a clear diplomatic and legal victory over a great power like China, but it did include, in the seventh paragraph of a 124-paragraph communique, a reference to the international treaty which made that landmark ruling possible.

"We reaffirmed the shared commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability in the region, as well as to the peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos)."

This is an important concession, and we can understand the process of rationalisation that must have convinced the country's diplomats to let a passage like this suffice.

But in the two paragraphs devoted to the still-simmering disputes in parts of the South China Sea, the Philippines as host declined to press its advantage.

Using the comparative analysis done by Rand Corporation analyst Lyle Morris, we can see that:

Unlike in 2014 or 2016, there was no expression of concern over China's aggressive land reclamation campaign in both the Spratlys and the Paracels.

Unlike in 2015 or 2016, there was no statement warning against militarisation or escalation - either of which describes China's land reclamation and facility-building binge.

Unlike in 2015 or 2016, there was no passage candidly declaring the erosion of trust because of China's aggressive build-up in the region.

There is the reinforced call to finally make good on the decade-old commitment to forge a Code of Conduct, with the framework for the COC expected to be completed by the middle of the year. There is the repeated assurance of the freedom of navigation and of over-flights.

And - another passage of rationalisation - there is the expression taking note of the concerns of some leaders about the South China Sea disputes, as in 2015 and 2016.

As we said, not a total loss. Now the focus must turn to the completion of the framework that will finally lead to the COC; that has much less room for appeasement or rationalisation.

Focus should be on regional cooperation

China Daily,

A Chinese naval fleet completed a three-day visit to the Philippines. The first such visit in seven years provides the latest proof of the two countries' resolve to continuously expand bilateral interaction and deepen political mutual trust.

Since taking office in July, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been seeking to dispel the bad blood in bilateral ties and advance cooperation in a wide range of fields.

The Asean Summit statement delivered by Mr Duterte did not include strong wording about the South China Sea issue, which marked a major departure from the provocative attitudes and deeds of the previous Philippine government.

Beijing and Manila have also agreed to establish two-way consultation on the South China Sea issue. Their first bilateral meeting is scheduled for this month, and diplomats from both countries will discuss issues of common concern and the promotion of maritime and security cooperation.

Meanwhile, China and Asean are working hard to complete the drafting of a framework for the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea by mid-year. Greater communication and engagement would bridge the differences and enable both sides to cherish the hard-won fruits in bilateral ties and pursue more.

Asean softens stance as US belatedly beckons

Frank Ching
The China Post,

What a difference a year makes. Last year, at the 29th Asean Summit in Laos, while the leaders of the 10-nation Asean were careful not to criticise China by name, they let it be known that Chinese actions had eroded trust and raised tensions.

But even such subdued voicing of concern over Chinese actions was missing from this year's statement.

The Chairman's Statement last weekend underwent several drafts and, it seems clear, China successfully brought its influence to bear. An earlier draft included mention of land reclamation and militarisation. However, both terms are absent from the final statement.

Now, the US is trying to make up for lost ground. Over the weekend, US President Donald Trump spoke on the phone with both the prime minister of Singapore and Thailand and invited them to the White House. But the most significant call he made was to President Duterte.

Mr Trump invited Mr Duterte to visit the White House "to discuss the importance of the United States-Philippines alliance, which is now heading in a very positive direction".

President Trump is scheduled to visit the Philippines in November to take part in the East Asia Summit and the US-Asean summit. That month, he will also be in Vietnam for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

If Mr Trump manages to salvage the US-Philippine alliance despite Mr Duterte's pledge in China to join Beijing and Moscow to face down the rest of the world, it will be a well-deserved feather in his diplomatic cap. China will be watching closely.

  • The View From Asia is a compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner, Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 news media entities. For more, see
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2017, with the headline 'Spoken and unspoken messages in the Asean Summit statement'. Subscribe