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China haunts ASEAN's dreams

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COMMENTS

27 July 2012 09:14

China said boo and ASEAN flinched, jumped and momentarily fell silent. By failing to release any communiqué to mark its annual meeting, ASEAN's foreign ministers ensured everyone would note their failure.

This is a signal with multiple meanings. Or, to turn that thought around, no single or simple explanation should be given to the ASEAN fiasco in Phnom Penh. As failures go, this was fascinating, illuminating a game with many players that has been played many times before and will have many more iterations.

Understanding ASEAN is always about picking the moments of substance from those of shadow play. Introduce China into this equation and you get a glimpse into the deeper parts of the ASEAN psyche, where the dreams and the nightmares reside. Come down the time tunnel and reflect on what history tells us about ASEAN and China.

In 1989, I'd flown from my post in Singapore to Beijing as part of the cohort of correspondents the ABC used to report the massacre in Tiananmen square. Returning to Singapore, my next assignment was to report the annual ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Brunei.

The joint communiqué of the 22nd ministerial meeting was a weighty document running to 87 numbered clauses, ranging over headings including Southern Africa, Afghanistan, Asia Pacific Cooperation, West Asia, Disarmament, the search for a settlement in Kampuchea...and on it ran. When I'd got through the sizeable collection of ASEAN pronouncements I can remember a moment of puzzlement that quickly turned to astonishment. There was not a word in that 4 July statement about what had happened in Tiananmen on 4 June.

The name China didn't get a mention. Paragraph 12 was an expression of welcome for the Sino-Soviet summit that had happened in Beijing in May when Gorbachev visited; but there was not a word about the bloody crushing of the democracy movement in June, one of the seminal moments of 1989 that will always serve as the grim counterpoint to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November.

With document in hand, I wandered over to one of the senior hacks gathered in Bandar Seri Begawan to cover the meeting. His ranking as an old Asia hand had been established at breakfast when he'd piled on the sliced chilli and the advice he offered was similarly astringent: 'You're not in Canberra any more, mate. This is ASEAN. The silences say as much as the statements.'

In those days, ASEAN had only six member countries. So the next Foreign Ministers' gathering in Bandar happened in 1995. By then, the ASEAN Regional Forum was going, so this was a much larger jamboree.

China was a presence as well as a factor. My defining memory of that gathering was the ceremony to enrol Vietnam as the seventh member of ASEAN. Vietnam's Foreign Minister, Nguyen Manh Cam, walked on stage to be greeted by the other ASEAN foreign ministers; sitting impassively in the front row of the audience was China's Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen. As the Vietnamese Minister turned to face the audience, his eyes went directly to the face of the Chinese minister. This was a moment of Sino-Vietnamese history with a prelude of thousands of years, a stage of Southeast Asian regionalism that spoke also to a complex ancient relationship with China.

From these perspectives, the Phnom Penh debacle can be read lots of ways. As usual, Ernest Bower offers some useful analysis. He sees Phnom Penh less as a spectacular failure for ASEAN but as a clear example of China overplaying its cards:

China has revealed its hand as an outlier on the question of ASEAN unity. It seemingly used its growing economic power to press Cambodia into the awkward position of standing up to its ASEAN neighbours on one of the most important security concerns for the grouping and its members. China's overt role, underlined by leaks about Cambodia's complicity in sharing drafts, seems to suggest Beijing's hand in promoting ASEAN disunity. Thus the most important message coming from Phnom Penh is not the intramural ASEAN spat over the joint statement but, rather, that China has decided that a weak and splintered ASEAN is in its best interests.

On that reading, ASEAN has a chance to regroup and play a rematch, again and again. The ASEAN chairs over the next four years will be Brunei, Burma, Malaysia and Laos. Cambodia's performance revealed again that the role of the chairman matters in ASEAN in ways that often outweigh the power of the ASEAN secretariat.

ASEAN has every incentive to draw closer together, to bolster unity so as to be able to coordinate a diplomatic push-back against Beijing. That is not a recipe for calm in the South China Sea. Don Emmerson judges that the deadlock in Phnom Penh will delay a code of conduct for the South China Sea, but equally will cause some ASEAN states to be less willing in future to kowtow to their giant neighbour, for the sake of both national and regional independence:

If China wields its geo-economic and geopolitical power as a blunt instrument – 'I’m big and you're not' – it will trigger joint push back among Southeast Asians while earning their disrespect. Smart power in a networked world of high-speed linkages, flows, and innovations means knowing when recourse to physical preponderance is counter-productive. Size does matter, but how it is used matters more. By the evidence of Chinese diplomacy, that lesson has not been fully learned.

In Phnom Penh, some ASEAN foreign ministers were ready to make a public display of failure rather than give China veto rights over the communiqué. Silence is no longer an option as it was back in 1989. This is an ASEAN more willing to stare back at China, following Vietnam's example in 1995.

China overplayed its power to get a short-term diplomatic win in Phnom Penh; very short term. The cost of Beijing's 'win' was to galvanise ASEAN to a point of such anger that it tore up the final communiqué altogether. A bland document with the usual ASEAN-speak about ongoing dialogue would have been the usual ASEAN response. Instead, ASEAN is confronting its own purposes in a way that must have astounded Beijing even as much as it is surprising ASEAN itself.

What happened in Phnom Penh was a sign of how high the stakes have become. The diplomatic struggle reflects the power interests in play. A China that pushes so hard to win the communiqué argument is just as likely to overplay its naval strategy. No wonder the talk of 'accidental war' in  the South China Sea is on the rise. 

Photo by Flickr user Gustavo Thomas.

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