ASEAN adopts Laos communiqué amid unity concerns

Tama Salim

The Jakarta Post

Vientiane

Jakarta   /  Mon, July 25, 2016  /  07:36 pm

Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith (sixth from left) and Laotian Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith (sixth from right) stand with Southeast Asian foreign ministers, from left, an unidentified delegate from Malaysia, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, Vivian Balakrishnan of Singapore, Don Pramudwinai of Thailand, Pham Binh Minh of Vietnam, Thongloun Sisoulith, Saleumxay Kommasith, Perfecto Yasay Jr. of the Philippines, Brunei's Trade Minister Jock Seng Pehin Lim, Sakhonn Prak of Cambodia, Retno Marsudi of Indonesia and ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh, as they pose for a group photo during the opening ceremony of the 49th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Vientiane on July 24, 2016. (Associated Press/Sakchai Lalit)

In a surprising turn of events, ASEAN has released and adopted a joint communiqué for the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) and related events in Vientiane, Laos, despite earlier concerns the bloc would not be able to reach a consensus on the matter.

Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi said top ASEAN diplomats had reached a consensus on the communiqué text during an informal assembly held early on Monday, just an hour before the group met with counterparts from Beijing in the ASEAN-China Post Ministerial Conference (PMC).

"The consensus to issue a negotiated communiqué acceptable by all member states showcases ASEAN unity and centrality, creating a positive atmosphere in the midst of the AMM and PMC meetings," Retno told reporters in a press briefing after the ASEAN-China meeting.

The joint communiqué was adopted shortly after the early morning crunch talks at around 9 a.m. and was published during the PMC with Beijing. Nevertheless, the minister said that talks with China remained "constructive."

Thailand’s Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai confirmed ASEAN's new crowning achievement moments before the talks with China, shouting out "consensus" when he passed by a slew of reporters waiting for updates.

The regional organization prides itself on consensus diplomacy, only issuing joint statements if all member states agree to them. A failure to do so would have likely damaged the bloc's reputation and relevance on the global stage.

Even so, ASEAN has had to negotiate hard on a text that would appease Cambodia, which has long been a close ally of China.

Cambodia is heavily dependent on Chinese aid and investment. Last week, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen announced China would give his government around US$600 million in soft loans.

"There will always be differences among countries and the decision is not likely to appease everyone involved, but at least it showcases the earnestness of all member states to safeguard their unity and ASEAN's centrality," Retno added.

The communiqué is considered a step up from the ASEAN chair Laos’ statement adopted in an earlier retreat in February, when ASEAN foreign ministers agreed on respecting "legal and diplomatic processes."

It is also a huge feat for disputing countries in the region, as it comes out roughly two weeks after an international tribunal ruling invalidated China's historical claims in the South China Sea. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have competing claims in the region.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled earlier in the month against Chinese interests, and Beijing has been adamantly opposed to its acknowledgement.

Although the PCA ruling was not directly addressed in the joint communiqué, it included a whole section on the South China Sea issue, placing emphasis on non-militarization and respect for the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which underpins the tribunal's award. (ary)