ASEAN Issues Communique On South China Sea, Seeks Compromise


On Sunday, foreign leaders of several Southeast Asian nations met to discuss the contentious situation in the South China Sea. At the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit last weekend, prominent ministers of ten member states came together to devise a strategy moving forward. China’s expansion into the disputed territory has caused a great deal of conflict over recent years, as the nation has begun large-scale land reclamation. This has created a tense international atmosphere, as many of China’s legal and historical claims to the South China Sea have been dismissed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

The ASEAN foreign ministers were initially unable to issue their joint statement after the summit in Manila, as they struggled over how to address the South China Sea situation and North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. Cambodia allegedly expressed concerned over a separate statement released by ASEAN foreign ministers that criticized North Korea’s two intercontinental ballistic missile tests last month. The Cambodian diplomat expressed a desire for their communique to better reflect the inclusive stance of all members states. However, critics believe that this move was Cambodia’s attempt to champion for China’s interests. Cambodia is one of China’s strongest allies within ASEAN and has allegedly leveraged its position as a member state to protect Chinese endeavours.

Other countries, such as Vietnam, were adamant that the situation cannot continue in this manner. Vietnam argued vehemently for “tough language” to be included in the communique. This tough language would directly express joint disapproval over China’s land reclamation and artificial island building in the contested waters. It is important to note, however, that Vietnam has competing claims with China over the Parcel and Spratly archipelago. This Southeast Asian country also fought with Beijing over energy concessions. Thus, it is clear that the national interests of this ASEAN member state have impacted its position.

Nonetheless, the South China Sea situation remains the most controversial topic discussed during the ASEAN summit last weekend. The ASEAN ministers ultimately issued a 46-page joint communique one day later than expected. The statement referenced an international arbitration ruling that essentially invalidated China’s claims to the South China Sea. While the statement “emphasized the importance of non-militarisation and self- restraint,” it failed to mention China by name.

According to the Associated Press, foreign ministers discussed the possibility of introducing a “code of conduct” in those waters, in an effort to prevent further disagreement. The code includes a “dual-track approach,” which indicates that disputes over the South China Sea should be addressed through discussion and negotiation among all countries involved. Additionally, it is expected that China and the ASEAN countries will work together to ensure stability in that region.

The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, said that the powerful nation has agreed to the framework for negotiation over the South China Sea. The minister went on to say, “China and ASEAN have the ability to work together to maintain regional peace and stability and we [China] will work out regional rules that we mutually agreed upon so as to open up a bright future for our future relations.” While the joint statement issued after the ASEAN Summit was a step toward compromise, there is still more work to be done. Each state must put aside strict national agendas and collaborate to achieve progress.