The ‘exquisitely balanced’ Asean-US statement

Against the backdrop of US State Secretary Hillary Clinton’s statement in Hanoi last July that it is in the “national interest” of the United States that freedom of navigation be maintained in the South China Sea, diplomatic observers were anticipating a strongly worded reference on that issue in the joint statement that would be released after the 2nd ASEAN-US held at the Waldorf Hotel in New York last Saturday.

The official statement simply said: “We re-affirmed the importance of regional peace and stability, maritime security, unimpeded commerce, and freedom of navigation, in accordance with relevant universally agreed principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other international maritime law, and the peaceful settlement of disputes.”

There was no mention of South China Sea!

What happened? We saw two drafts of the statement and they both revolved around the South China Sea which China announced last March as part of its “core sovereignty interest” at par with Tibet and Taiwan. That means China will not hesitate to use force to protect that “core sovereignty interest.”

Perhaps alarmed by China’s declaration about the South China which it claims wholly, Vietnam, chairman of this year’s ASEAN meeting and one of those that claim parts of the area, put in the agenda in the South China Sea in the last Asian Regional Forum last July.

The ARF is composed of 10 ASEAN countries – Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia. Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam – and their 17 dialogue partners namely, Australia, Canada, China, European Union, India, Japan, Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea, Republic of Korea, Mongolia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Russian Federation, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Timor Leste,and the United States.

It was at the ARF where Clinton said that “The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea.”

She also said that the United States supports “a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion.”

Diplomatic observers see it as a new direction for U.S. foreign policy, a deviation from what was pursued by the Bush administration that largely ignored Asia.

Clinton’s remark, as expected drew sharp response from China. China’s Foreign Ministry posted a statement on its web site saying that Clinton’s statements are “virtually an attack on China” and that there is “no problem” with the freedom of navigation and security in the region.

The drafting of the statement that ASEAN leaders including President Aquino and US President Barack Obama showed the dynamics between Asean and the U.S., complete with its cultural sensitivities and political pragmatism.

An early draft we saw looked like a U.S. initiative. It said, “We re-affirmed the importance of freedom of navigation, regional stability, respect for international law and unimpeded commerce under lawful conditions in the South China Sea.

“ASEAN and the United States share these interests with other maritime nations, including the SCS claimants and the broader international community. The U.S. expressed support for the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and encouraged the parties to reach agreement on a full code of conduct. Further, ASEAN and the United States oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant attempting to enforce disputed claims in the South China Sea.”

ASEAN submitted an alternative: ““We re-affirmed the importance of regional peace and stability, maritime security, unimpeded commerce, and freedom of navigation, in accordance with relevant universally agreed principles of international law, and the peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea.”

In the end, South China Sea was deleted. A source privy to the drafting of the statement said it was the consensus of all parties that, “It’s best that we don’t specify South China Sea.”

A week before the 2nd ASEAN-US summit, two ranking American officials, Kurt Campbell, assistant State secretary, and Jeffrey Bader,national Security Council Senior Director for Asia, met with the ambassadors of Southeast Asian countries to discuss the topics that the Leaders would tackle. “Maintenance of regional stability” was in the list.

Bader, a diplomatic source said, told the ASEAN ambassadors that the U.S. wants to strike “the exquisite balance” on the issues involving maritime security to ensure that they will not create a new venue for US-China tensions.

He added they will remain supportive of regional efforts maintaining peace in the area without having to create new mechanism to discuss the issue.

ASEAN is treading the delicate balance of maintaining close relations with the two superpowers. Political analyst Benito Lim said ASEAN is now faced with a U.S reasserting its paramount leadership in Asia Pacific which was neglected by the Bush administration when it went to war in Iraq in 2003.

“Now Obama and Clinton are-reasserting the role of the U.S. in Asia. They are saying we are back. But when they did so, they found out that many Asians, despite doubts on the secret motive of China, have accepted China’s role as an economic leader and decided to engage China economically. So now, the U.S. has to do soft power charm offensive.”

Lim said ASEAN is in a dilemma: “They appreciate and need military cooperation with the U.S. They want and need the military umbrella that such cooperation provides but they also need economic cooperation with China. They do not want to make a choice. They want cooperation and development. They want a win-win situation.”

That is best expressed in the official ASEAN-US statement. (Malaya)

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