Analysts say the 34th ASEAN summit this weekend made little progress on two key security issues facing the region: Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea and stalled repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who are languishing in Bangladesh.
Leaders from ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations gathered in Bangkok to tackle regional issues including trade, terrorism, and ongoing wrangling over the potentially mineral-rich South China Sea.
But with its traditional emphasis on enhancing “trust and confidence” among nations, the summit refrained from criticizing China’s military installations on disputed islands, and did not use the word “Rohingya” in addressing the plight of the stateless ethnic minority in its final statement.
“We can call it ASEAN style – avoid talking the hard part and reach agreement on peripheral issues to complete the negotiating process within the timeline,” Dulyapak Preecharush a professor at Thammasat University in Thailand, told BenarNews.
The ASEAN chairman’s statement said the bloc was encouraged by the progress of the negotiations “toward the early conclusion of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea within a mutually agreed timeline.”
“We welcomed efforts to complete the first reading of the single draft COC negotiating text by this year,” it said.
The statement was referring to the first of three planned rounds of talks on the proposed code, with more difficult points such as whether it should be legally binding relegated to later rounds, the Associated Press reported, citing Southeast Asia diplomats.
ASEAN member states and China agreed on a “draft code of conduct negotiating text” in June 2018, after vowing to put the pact in place in 2002.
During that time, Beijing built up and occupied islands in the mineral-rich sea, and has stationed missiles on islands in close proximity to countries such as the Philippines.
China claims the strategic sea in its entirety despite overlapping claims by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
“The ASEAN summit did not seem to deliver anything new with regard to the South China Sea. The language used in the chairman’s statement was mostly recycled from previous summits,” A. Ibrahim Almuttaqi, head of the ASEAN studies program at the Habibie Center in Jakarta, told BenarNews.
“This may be as a result of the ‘continued improving cooperation between ASEAN and China’ mentioned in the [final] statement, and the desire to not disrupt the current status quo.”
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte complained Sunday about the pace of negotiations through his spokesman.
“The longer the delay for an early conclusion of the COC, the higher the probability of maritime incidents happening and the greater the chance for miscalculations that may spiral out of control,” spokesman Salvador Panelo told Philippine media.
Earlier in June, the Philippines filed a diplomatic protest against China, after Manila said that a Chinese ship sank a fishing boat within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, leaving 22 Filipino fishermen floating at sea until they were rescued by a Vietnamese boat.
Officials said a Chinese militia ship likely was behind the ramming.
But on Saturday, Manila accepted Beijing’s offer to conduct a joint probe of the incident, after earlier rejecting the idea and announcing both countries would hold their own investigations.
On Monday, Duterte said he could not take bolder action over the incident because it was just a “maritime accident.”
“I’m sorry, but that’s how it is,” local news portal the Sun Star quoted him as saying.
Regarding Myanmar, the ASEAN chairman’s statement stressed support for ensuring safety in conflict-torn Rakhine state and facilitating the return of “displaced persons in a safe, secure and dignified manner.”
About 740,000 Rohingya fled into Bangladesh from their homes in Rakhine state starting in August 2017 following a military crackdown against the minority Muslim group.
Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a reparation deal that was to begin in early 2018, but so far no Rohingya have expressed a willingness to return until Myanmar guarantees their safety, grants them citizenship and acknowledges their ethnic identity.
In June, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told reporters in Dhaka that Myanmar was reluctant to take back the Rohingya Muslims despite the signed agreement to repatriate them.
“Everybody wants the Rohingya people to return to Myanmar from Bangladesh. But Myanmar does not want to take them back. Here lies the problem,” Hasina said.
In Bangkok Saturday, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah called for “perpetrators of the Rohingya issue to be brought to justice,” and said repatriation must include citizenship.
But bowing to Myanmar’s official practice, the final summit statement did not acknowledge the group’s ethnic identity.
“ASEAN is failing the Rohingya. The failure of ASEAN to properly address the crisis escalates the threat that Myanmar poses to international peace and security, increasing the need for the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court,” Fortify Rights chief executive officer Matthew Smith told BenarNews.
Other analysts questioned ASEAN’s commitment to the Rohingya.
“There seems to be some ‘foot dragging’ with the issue being bogged down by questionable procedures such as a fact finding team, preliminary needs assessment missions, and so forth,” Almuttaqi said.
Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies headquartered in London, said ASEAN’s action could prove counterproductive.
“The Bangladeshi government of Sheikh Hasina is under political pressure to see the refugees return, and there is significant risk that it will force them back across the border,” he told BenarNews.