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Aug 17, 2020 / 23:58

ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Statement sends message to both Beijing and Washington

ASEAN foreign ministers' first-time statement stresses the importance of multilateralism.

Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have stressed the importance of maintaining peace and stability in Southeast Asia as a message to both the US and China, according to Emeritus Prof. Carl Thayer, one of the world’s leading experts on Vietnam and the South China Sea.

 ASEAN foreign ministers at the retreat held in Vietnam in January 2020. Photo:

The message is conveyed in the statement released earlier this month on the occasion of the 53rd anniversary of the ASEAN establishment to highlight the ASEAN centrality and ASEAN-led mechanisms in constructive engagement.

“In other words, ASEAN and its members will not join a US-led anti-China grouping and neither will they join China and exclude the US from regional affairs,” said Carl Thayer, a professor at the University of New South Wales, Canberra.

The scholar gave the analysis at a time when ASEAN foreign ministers issued this kind of statement for the first time. In the statement, they called on ‘all countries to exercise self-restraint… and refrain from the threat or use of force, and to resolve differences and disputes by peaceful means in accordance with international law.’

Rise in US-China strategic rivalry 

Prof. Thayer gave an overview on the current situation in Southeast Asia, in which the rise in intensity of US-China strategic rivalry across a number of issues namely trade disputes, response to the coronavirus pandemic, and South China Sea disputes has threatened both the security of individual ASEAN member states and ASEAN centrality in regional security.

 The US amphibious assault ship USS America arrives at the Sattahip Naval Base in Chonburi, Thailand, ahead of the joint 'Cobra Gold' military exercise on February 22, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Handout/ Royal Thai Navy

Both China and the US have conducted major military exercises in the South China Sea. 

In addition, the US has escalated its verbal criticism of the Communist Party of China and called on ‘free states’ to oppose Chinese 'tyranny.' In the lead up to the 53rd anniversary of ASEAN, between August 3 and 6, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo personally contacted the foreign ministers of Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam to offer US support in upholding their sovereign rights.

Meanwhile, on August 5, China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused Washington of ‘seeking to drive a wedge between China and ASEAN countries, and disrupt the consultation process of the Code of Conduct.’ Wang Yi also called on ‘China and ASEAN countries… [to] work together to safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea’ implying the exclusion of the US.

It is in this tense hot house atmosphere that Vietnam as ASEAN Chair has taken leadership to ensure that ASEAN and its members remain united and cohesive in the face of ‘geo-political dynamics’ that could impact to the detriment of ‘peace and stability, sustainable progress and prosperity’ in the region, the professor noted.

Promoting multilateralism 

The Foreign Ministers’ Statement ended by reiterating ASEAN’s support for multilateralism, in which it highlighted the 2011 Declaration of the East Asia Summit on the Principles of Mutually Beneficially Relations. 

Prof. Thayer said this declaration laid out the norms and principles that ASEAN expects both China and the US to adhere to. The East Asia Summit is an ASEAN-led mechanism.

In addition, ASEAN will reach out to its dialogue partners to convince them to work through ASEAN-led mechanisms such as the East Asia Summit to be held at the end of this year in order to forestall the polarization of Southeast Asia, he added.

The statement also reaffirmed the importance of their ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific that set out four areas of cooperation: Maritime cooperation, connectivity, UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030, and economic and other areas of cooperation. ASEAN will work hard to get both China and the US to support these priorities.

Finally, ASEAN will respond to Wang Yi’s August 5 proposal ‘that we remove all disturbances to restart as soon as possible the Code of Conduct (COC) consultation, and agree as early as possible on a set of rules for maintaining long-term peace and stability in the region,’ the professor stressed.