The 2017 ASEAN Gathering of Ministers in Manila
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By Tai Wei Lim

The 2017 ASEAN Gathering of Ministers in Manila

Aug. 15, 2017  |     |  0 comments

An important purpose of the August 2017 ASEAN gathering in Manila was to prevent any conflict from erupting in the South China Sea (SCS) and work towards a framework for a Code of Conduct. At the end of the meeting, ASEAN overcame all obstacles and issued a communique addressing the non-militarization of the SCS. The common statement may indicate that Southeast Asian countries have overcome divisiveness to a certain degree to unite behind peace and stability. Self-restraint was another purpose for issuing the communique.


Both China and ASEAN have also agreed on the framework for a Code of Conduct. This is a preliminary step to move onto the next step of negotiating the Code of Conduct itself. It creates positive foundations for the next stage of the discussion. It is a useful outline for working out the details of the Code of Conduct.


The Code of Conduct may eventually oversee the peaceful stability of the South China Sea, a busy shipping hub with lanes that carry much of Asia-Pacific trade. The most important contribution of the framework is that it helps to create a superstructure on which details of the Code can be constructed and built upon. The next stage will not be easy and all stakeholders should not have illusions about it but the obstacle to the first step has been overcome.


A secondary purpose or agenda for the Manila gathering on the part of the US was to explore consensus with ASEAN friends and alliance partners to marginalize and ostracize Pyongyang in the international community as a response to its recent Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) test.


At the meeting, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and North Korea Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho did not meet as anticipated. Japan did not meet up with Ri as well. However, Tillerson kept the door open for dialogue, mentioning publicly that there were no specific prerequisites for the dialogue with Pyongyang, though the best show of goodwill for the US is to cease missile testing. Tillerson also mentioned that there was no time limit for carrying out the talks. The US should be praised for practicing maximum self-restraint despite provocations.


Nevertheless, Ri’s appearance at the meeting was hailed by some in the Western media as an unusual round of diplomatic appearance by Pyongyang’s top diplomat. Ri carried out dialogues with China, South Korea and Russia. China also contributed to its part, as depicted by the international media. Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi, reportedly told Ri not to violate the UN’s decision or provoke the international society’s good will through tests (missile or/and nuclear device).


The US, which is showing great restraint in the Korean Peninsula missile crisis, has tested its own ICBMs — the Minuteman III model — to underline the superiority of its nuclear arsenal. The US released public statements to indicate that the test was not related to the recent North Korean provocation. The US also flew its formidable supersonic nuclear bombers in a show of strength in that region.


Pyongyang so far has not made any clear and unambiguous signals that they wish to participate in talks and have recently chosen not to respond to the South Korean leadership’s call for talks. Quite recently, Pyongyang had sought ASEAN assistance in the Korean Peninsula standoff. But some ASEAN leaders have already rebuffed or were critical of this outreach. Pyongyang and its leadership was recently criticized by Filipino President Duterte to a certain extent.

The main criticism against the framework is that it is not legally binding. A possible next step is a conflict resolution mechanism, which has been conceptualized and proposed by some parties.

North Korea is Beijing’s public-stated ally on paper and both are close economic partners. Beijing is also contributing to international efforts to chastise Pyongyang for its missile tests in contravention of the international community’s norms. For some parties of the six-party talks (Russia, the US, China, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea), the North Korean missile issue is an important agenda. China is widely seen as playing a constructive role in this area. The US is urging Beijing to use its influence over Pyongyang to do more.


A tertiary objective of the ASEAN gathering was to talk about functionalist and constructivist projects like counter terrorism cooperation. The Philippines recently experienced the Marawi siege that saw other ASEAN countries stepping up to contribute to Filipino efforts in countering the terrorist groups. There are some narratives reported in the international media that defeated or escaping ISIS fighters from Iraq and Syria may be travelling to Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines.


Logically speaking, and from a multilateral constructivist view, all three issues (SCS, North Korean missiles, terrorism) are equally crucial. Therefore, Tillerson’s participation in the Manila gathering and dialoguing with ASEAN countries was seen as extremely crucial. This was a significant trip by the US Secretary of State as it was his inaugural introduction to the region of Southeast Asia and meeting with ASEAN.


This formal introduction was also important for the Trump administration that is now in its post-honeymoon period, but still relatively young in tenure, especially in geopolitical terms to communicate with its allies and friends on forward strategies. Many are also waiting for President Trump’s important arrival and presence in the important and significant meetings in the US-ASEAN summit and the East Asia summit in the Philippines, as well as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam in November 2017. It may be possible for Trump to shore up regional expectations of US interest in the region at those meetings.


The latest bout of tensions in SCS came about when China strongly rebuffed Vietnam for allowing a fossil fuel extraction company to work in the SCS. Both are important rational stakeholders of peace and stability in East Asia and like rational and experienced entities in the region, both countries have stepped down from the tensions. The underwater resources of the disputed SCS islands include fossil fuels like natural gas and other minerals. Both China and Vietnam want peace and they can be both lauded for stepping down from high temperatures and for being rational players. President Duterte of the Philippines also appears conciliatory to China as well. All stakeholders should look ahead and ensure that the positive atmosphere can be sustained post-Manila meeting.


The gathering produced the anticipated framework of a code of conduct on SCS, overcoming all obstacles which were formidable in and of themselves. The framework is highly important as it stresses on peace, cooperation, legal methodologies, diplomacy over confrontation, war and tension. There appears to be consensus towards supporting the freedom of navigation through the SCS waters.


The main criticism against the framework is that it is not legally binding. If all goes well, a possible next step is a conflict resolution mechanism, which has been conceptualized and proposed by some parties. Regardless of the next step, the framework has set a useful tone and structure for the next level of negotiations. Nobody should take peace and stability for granted and it will take rounds of hard work by diplomats and countries involved to reach a certain level of critical momentum for achieving consensus for peace.


At the point of this writing, temperatures over North Korean missile tests has decidedly gone up with Pyongyang announcing some form of plans to strike Guam after the US President warned of “fire and fury” in response to the missile threat. The major powers (US, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea) are now working hard to bring both peace and deterrence to the region.

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