Asean’s top diplomats and their international counterparts on Saturday ended four days of gruelling virtual meetings, where US-China tensions and fears of the South China Sea dispute emerging as a proxy for their rivalry cast a huge shadow over the annual proceedings.

Some 19 meetings – including Saturday’s 

Asean Regional Forum (ARF) – have been held in unprecedented fashion via videoconferencing since Wednesday due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Along with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (Asean) biannual summit of national leaders, the ARF is among the highlights of the bloc’s year-long meetings.

Vietnam, the current chairman of the 10-nation grouping, said on Saturday the successful conduct of the virtual meetings demonstrate member states’ “unity and solidarity” in the midst of the global health crisis.

While the attendees emphasised that cooperation over recovery from the pandemic was the biggest talking point of the gatherings, it was the participation of the superpowers in several of the meetings that gained the most attention among diplomatic commentators.

In particular, analysts have seized on acerbic remarks aired by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his US counterpart Michael Pompeo on Wednesday during a meeting of diplomats of the East Asia Summit (EAS) grouping comprising Asean and its eight key trading partners.

The two senior diplomats were initially expected to also take part in Saturday’s ARF, but with Wang in the midst of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meetings in Moscow, Beijing dispatched Deputy Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui to attend.

Joint communique delayed

Also raising eyebrows was the nearly day-long delay in the publication of a joint communique by the Asean foreign ministers after they conferred among themselves in the first meeting on Wednesday.

The joint communique, unlike so-called chairman’s statements issued in other Asean meetings, is a consensus document that requires all 10 countries to green light the language in the report.

The delay reportedly had to do with differences among the 10 nations over language surrounding the South China Sea dispute between four Asean member states and Beijing.

The row has emerged as a complex, multidimensional headache for Asean countries.

Claimant countries and others in the bloc do not accept China’s vast nine-dash line claim in the waters but at the same time are keen not to antagonise the region’s most important trading partner.

The claimants – Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei – have the backing of the US, which says China’s claims endanger the freedom of navigation and overflight in the resource-rich sea.

While welcoming Washington’s support, the claimants as well as concerned party Indonesia are eager not to give Beijing the impression that they are bandwagoning against it.

China insists it has “historic rights” in the waters and has accused the US of aligning itself with the Southeast Asian claimants as part of a proxy battle against it.

Speaking in a press conference on Saturday evening, Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh said Asean countries made clear during the meetings that they did not want to be “stuck in the competition between the major powers as that would affect peace and stability in the region”.

For analysts, the delay of the communique was illustrative of how the US-China rivalry was manifesting itself within Asean.

A chairman’s statement following Saturday’s ARF meeting – unique for having a wide global representation including from North Korea – has yet to be released, but is expected to be uncontroversial.

Indonesian analyst A. Ibrahim Almuttaqi said what stood out in the communique “was not so much its content but the fact that it took more than a day to be released”.

The researcher, head of the Asean Studies Centre at The Habibie Centre think tank in Jakarta, said it was noteworthy that the section on the sea row eventually turned out to be “almost similar word-for-word from last year’s communique”.

In referencing the need to adhere to international law to resolve the dispute, the communique this time round said the process had to be “in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law”.

The words “universally recognised principles” were absent in last year’s document.

Thomas Daniel, a senior analyst with Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies, said it was noteworthy that the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), was mentioned thrice in the context of the sea row.

The invocation of the law in itself is controversial.

Asean countries cite it to illustrate how China’s nine-dash line extends well into their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones as granted under the legislation.

China, however, does not recognise the law’s binding settlement provisions for sea boundary disputes. Though like Asean’s 10 countries China is a signatory to Unclos, in 2006 it exercised an opt out on such matters.

The communique invoked the law in discussing three issues: ongoing talks to conclude a code of conduct in the disputed sea, the upholding of international law, and the need for peaceful resolutions to conflicts.

US, China trade barbs

Apart from the communique, Pompeo and Wang’s heated exchanges have also been the subject of headlines.

Wang told participants in the EAS meeting, in which Pompeo took part, that it was the US that was the “biggest driver” of militarisation in the South China Sea.

He also said the current state of affairs between Washington and Beijing was not a struggle for power or a question of opposing systems, “but about adhering to multilateralism or unilateralism, and advocating win-win cooperation or zero-sum game”.

In turn, Pompeo in Thursday’s US-Asean ministerial meeting told counterparts in the region that they had to go beyond words and act against Beijing’s “bullying” in the South China Sea.

“I think keep going, don’t just speak up but act,” Pompeo was quoted as saying. “Don’t let the Chinese Communist Party walk over us and our people. You should have confidence and the American will be here in friendship to help you.”

The Habibie Centre’s Ibrahim said the sharp exchanges were disappointing.

“I think Indonesia’s [Foreign Minister] Retno Marsudi was very correct in warning the US and China not to involve the Asean region in their rivalry,” the researcher said. “As the two powers increasingly and more vocally try to force Asean to pick sides, Asean must also increasingly and more vocally stand up and push back against such efforts.”

Daniel, the Malaysian analyst, speculated that the two diplomats might have decided to skip Saturday’s ARF “to minimise face time, given the breadth of spats between the two countries.”

But he said it would also be prudent for both the US and China “to remember that for Asean, merely showing up can speak volumes to the perception of one’s commitment or sincerity”.