THE Bangkok summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) concluded on Monday with the outbreak of an unseemly diplomatic spat between ASEAN states and the US over the South China Sea.
ASEAN heads of state were deeply disappointed that Donald Trump chose not to attend the summit and sent a low-level diplomatic delegation instead, headed by Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien. In a sign of their anger, many ASEAN states including key American allies and partners, skipped the annual ASEAN-US summit. As a result, they missed Mr O’Brien speech, in which he reaffirmed the US’ commitment to maintain freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
South China Sea erupts: US calls out China over ‘intimidation’
China’s South China Sea row with US ‘worse than Cold War’
Additionally he defended the right of smaller ASEAN states to explore for and exploit energy resources in the area.
According to the Asia Times, the National Security adviser told his audience: “The region has no interest in a new imperial era where a big country can rule others on the theory that might makes right.
“America is helping our ASEAN friends uphold their sovereignty.”
ASEAN leaders’ decision to not attend the meeting with Mr O’Brien was strongly criticised by the US.
An American diplomat told reporters: “We are extremely concerned by the apparent decision to send lower level officials to the meeting.
“A full or partial boycott by ASEAN leaders will be seen as an intentional effort to embarrass the President of the United States of America and this will be very damaging to the substance of the ASEAN-US relations.”
This provoked a stinging reply from an ASEAN representative, who suggested that Trump’s no-show was undermining trust in the US as a reliable security partner.
The source said: “ASEAN as a whole was unhappy with US President Donald Trump who decided to skip the meeting.
“They were of the view that Trump should at least send a representative who is in the Cabinet. Such a gesture may set a bad example for other dialogue partners in the future.”
Meanwhile, China continued to quietly advance its interests during the summit.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang concluded new infrastructure projects as well as other business with allies Cambodia and Laos.
Mr Li also committed China to work together with ASEAN countries in drawing up a Code Of Conduct for the South China Sea, in an attempt to regulate disputes and deescalate tensions over the disputed waters.
The Chinese premier told journalists: “We are willing to work with ASEAN, under the consensus that has been reached, to sustain long term peace and stability in the South China Sea, according to the timetable set for three years.”
Some experts fear that the Code of Conduct would not contain but actually help Beijing reinforce its dominance in the South China Sea.
They point to China’s demands during last year’s SINO-ASEAN negotiations for a de facto veto over the right of Southeast Asian states to conduct joint military activities with external powers as evidence that China will have a free hand in dictating terms to any future agreement.
Beijing also pushed for exclusive sharing of precious energy and fishery resources in the area, effectively seeking the expulsion of multinational energy companies and extra-regional fishing vessels from the sea.
All the while, China continues to provoke its neighbours in the region with aggressive interventions, the latest flashpoint involving a Philippine shipping vessel
The incident took place in the Scarborough Shoal, which legally falls within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Chinese warships tried to prevent the passage of a Philippine tanker through the waters of the Shoal, only to be defied by the ship’s captain.
Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, a frequent outspoken critic of China’s intrusions into Philippine waters,said: “The captain did well. He neither flinched nor cowered, and he insisted that they were making innocent passage.
“His reaction was admirable.”