Chinese pressure was blamed on Thursday for a stunning diplomatic U-turn by Southeast Asian Nations that saw them retract a statement sounding alarm over Beijing’s island building in the South China Sea.
The chaotic events at the end of a meeting of foreign ministers from China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Tuesday have led to allegations of bullying by Beijing. The document, released by ASEAN member Malaysia and described as a joint statement from the bloc, warned developments in the hotly contested South China Sea could “undermine peace, security and stability”.
The statement specified “land reclamation” as a source of tension, a clear reference to China’s massive island building activities where it is trying to cement a claim to almost the whole sea. But just hours later, Malaysia said the grouping was retracting the statement for “urgent amendments”, but offered no reason. Various participants have since given conflicting explanations over what happened.
An ASEAN diplomat who was present at the meeting in the Chinese city of Kunming told AFP that China had put the screws on some Southeast Asian nations to get them to withdraw their support.
“The usual factor, pressure from China,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, when asked why unity crumbled. “I suspect the two countries that opposed the statement were Cambodia and Laos.”
Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper also reported today that the joint statement was “scuttled by the Chinese, who lobbied its friends in the grouping to block” it.
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“Malaysia releasing it was a manifestation of the extreme frustration of the original five ASEAN members plus Vietnam at the particularly crude and arrogant behaviour of the Chinese,” the Straits Times reported an ASEAN official as saying.
The Philippines also said on Thursday that there had originally been unanimous support within ASEAN for the strongly worded statement.
“By the time the meeting ended, there was an agreement among ASEAN foreign ministers. They agreed on the text of the ASEAN statement and they agreed it would be released,” Philippine foreign affairs spokesman Charles Jose told reporters in Manila.
Jose said the statement was then retracted after the meeting had ended and most foreign ministers, including the Philippines’ Jose Rene Almendras, had left the venue to start returning home.
Jose would not be drawn on whether Chinese lobbying was to blame, but insisted Malaysia’s initial release had not been in error.