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Foreign Policy

ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting: What’s New and Why It Matters

Aug 26 , 2019
  • Luo Liang

    Assistant Research Fellow, National Institute for South China Sea Studies

The 52nd ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting, and relevant discussions, were held in Bangkok recently. In addition to the ASEAN members, more than 30 countries — including China, the United States, Russia, Australia and Canada — as well as international organizations — such as the European Union — sent high-level delegations to the meetings. For this year, the following topics are worth further reflection:

First, the escalating trade tensions between South Korea and Japan added uncertainty to the cooperation among China, Japan, and South Korea as well as overall East Asia economic integration. South Korea and Japan had engaged in an intensive “diplomatic war” with regard to the economic and trade disputes. It was hoped that foreign ministers of the two would restart dialogue during the ASEAN meeting to bring a glimpse of hope to end the deadlock, but they failed to deliver. The global media unanimously chose to use photos depicting the unsuccessful scenario: one photo showed South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono remained smile-less during their meeting, leaving US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was standing between them, in an embarrassing situation. This was actually a continuation of the unpleasant meeting between the leaders of the two nations at the G20 Summit. The failed talks not only proved that the United States was ineffective in mediating, but also cast further uncertainty over the talks on the China-Japan-South Korea free trade agreement and about whether the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) will be completed as scheduled.

Second, Pompeo continued to play the trick of attacking China. At present, the trade war between China and the US continues, and bilateral relations between the two nations have deteriorated remarkably. Pompeo, who has never missed a single chance to badmouth China at any event on the international arena, arrived for the meeting as scheduled. As always, he targeted China. At the Lower Mekong Initiative’s ministerial meeting, he groundlessly accused China of building dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong in an attempt to regulate water flows to the lower reaches, and of trying to seize the controlling power over the Mekong River Commission through formulating and imposing China-centered rules. He again wasted no chances in selling the so-called China’s “militarization” of the South China Sea, in an attempt to find excuses for the US to increase its military deployment and to conduct more military drills in the region.

Third, China stressed again that ASEAN is a priority in its neighborhood diplomacy, and that it is committed to actively taking part in the East Asian regional cooperation. At the meeting, China stressed once again that ASEAN will be one of the priorities in China’s neighborhood diplomacy and one of the key regions for the Belt and Road Initiative projects, and expressed support for the central role for ASEAN and the construction of the ASEAN community. To show its sincerity, China announced a series of cooperation initiatives with ASEAN countries, including: designating 2020 as the year for China-ASEAN digital economy cooperation; launching the China-ASEAN Young Leaders Scholarship program; reaching consensus on dovetailing China's Belt and Road Initiative with the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025; advancing the China-ASEAN blue economic partnership; and fully implementing the protocol on the upgraded China-ASEAN Free Trade Area.

Fourth, China, for the first time, had a positive response to the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. The Outlook, which was endorsed at the 34th ASEAN Summit, was destined to be a major event for ASEAN this year. For the first time, China spoke highly of some principles and concepts in the ASEAN version of the Outlook. First of all, the Outlook aims to stress ASEAN’s central role; focuses on openness, inclusiveness, and transparency; underscores dialogue rather than confrontation; focuses on economic cooperation; improves connectivity; and achieves common prosperity—all of which happen to pair well with China’s philosophies. On the contrary, the American version of the “Indo-Pacific strategy” is exclusive, is characterized by its geopolitical and containment features, and is meant to heat up competition between big-power countries, form cliques, give priority to security, and take unilateral and coercive actions.

Fifth, China resolutely opposed groundless accusations made by countries from outside the region. A series of unpleasant events have occurred this year, including a collision between Chinese and Philippine naval vessels and the Chinese-Vietnamese disputes regarding oil exploration in South China Sea. However, in general, the situation was controllable and neither side took actions that complicated or led to deterioration of the bilateral relationships. At the same time, with the completion of the first reading of the single draft negotiating text of the Code of Conduct between China and the ASEAN being done ahead of the schedule, China and ASEAN helped stabilize the South China Sea situation and carried out effective cooperation. This made it more difficult for the US to sensationalize the issue, and as a result, the US instead played up China’s “militarization” of South China Sea. Foreign Minister Wang Yi disproved the old US trick, saying that the US, which has several hundred military bases and deploys hundreds of thousands of troops around the world, is least qualified to accuse others for “militarization.”

In addition, following the irresponsible remarks made by Pompeo at the ministerial meeting of the Lower Mekong Initiative, Wang Yi refuted the American Secretary of State’s claims with facts and statistics. Wang explained that it was a fact that serious droughts occurred in some regions of the lower reaches of the Mekong River, but that the same droughts also occurred in the upper reaches of the river. The outflow of the Lancang River accounts for only 13.5% of the total of the Mekong river system. Total outflow of the Mekong River is affected mainly by the water flows of its tributaries and the precipitation in the lower reaches. Furthermore, China voluntarily increased water discharge to the lower reaches of the river to alleviate the drought situation there. The Lancang-Mekong rivers are critically important for both China and some ASEAN nations.

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