Wednesday May 27, 2020



July 12, 2012

On July 12, foreign ministers and senior officials from 27 countries met in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh for the 19thASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). The ARF is an annual multilateral dialogue between representatives from the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nation states and 17 other countries, including the United States, Canada, Russia, and the European Union. It is a key forum for security dialogue in the region, aimed to encourage discussion of regional security issues between its members and promote peace, security and stability in the Asia-Pacific.

Discussions at the ARF on Thursday focused on issues of mutual interest and concern, such as non-proliferation and disarmament, disaster relief, and maritime security. The United States and China met separately during the forum, stressing areas of bilateral cooperation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi pledged to enhance dialogue and work together on sensitive regional issues.

A major focus in the regional forum and other ASEAN ministerial-level meetings held in Cambodia this week—including the ASEAN Plus Three meeting between ASEAN nations and China, Japan and South Korea, an ASEAN-US Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, and the Second East Asia Summit—was ongoing disputes over maritime claims in the South China Sea. China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei have competing territorial claims to islands in the South China Sea, which is the location of important international shipping lanes and reportedly vast reserves of natural gas and oil. Tensions over maritime claims have increased recently, with a naval standoff from April to June between China and the Philippines in the contested Scarborough Shoal, and protests from Vietnam over China National Offshore Oil Corp’s recent call for oil exploration in waters claimed by both Vietnam and China.

In the regional dialogues this week, ASEAN members sought to gain China’s support for a code of conduct governing resolution of maritime claims. In 2002, China and ASEAN signed a Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, agreeing that the sovereignty disputes would be resolved peacefully, but they have yet to craft and agree upon a code of conduct that would provide a framework for resolving competing claims. While a spokesperson for China’s foreign minister indicated that China was willing to discuss the formulation of a code of conduct with ASEAN “when conditions are ripe”, no agreement was reached on the issue in the multilateral talks this week. The ten ASEAN member states favor a united approach to the development of a code of conduct, but China maintains that the disputes should be resolved directly between the rival claimants and not in broader multilateral forums.

By the end of the weeklong summit, however, the 10 ASEAN nations were unable to agree upon a unified approach to resolution of sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. For the first time in 45 years, the organization failed to come to a consensus to issue a joint communique on the outcome of the dialogues. The communique was aborted during the summit due to disagreement over a paragraph relating to the South China Sea. Cambodia in particular was singled out as preventing progress on the communique during the talks due to its close relationship with China, from whom Cambodia receives a large amount of foreign investment. On Friday, July 20, ASEAN nations instead issued a six-point statement agreeing to draft and implement a code of conduct and exercise restraint in maritime disputes.

The United States officially does not recognize any of the competing maritime claims in the South China Sea, but has stated its interest in freedom of navigation and respect for international law. In a meeting with ASEAN ministers this week, Hillary Clinton confirmed that the US will not “take sides” in the disputes, but supports peaceful diplomatic resolution of the issue. Two years ago, Secretary of State Clinton’s remarks at the 17th ASEAN Regional Forum provoked Chinese anger when she stated that the United States would be willing to facilitate multilateral talks on a code of conduct. Chinese officials accused the United States of attempting to “internationalize” the issue. The emphasis on bilateral cooperation in talks between the United States and China at this year’s ARF may therefore be an attempt to downplay tensions surrounding the South China Sea issue. Ahead of the talks, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell said that the U.S. planned to unveil new cooperative initiatives with China at the ARF, to “send a very clear message…that we want to build a strong, durable partnership with China”.

Furthermore, analysts have noted that Clinton’s most recent trip to Asia, which included her participation at the ASEAN meetings in Cambodia, has focused more on economics and trade and stressed engagement with the region. This too may be an effort to reassure both China and its neighbors of the United States’ broader interests in the region in the context of the U.S.  strategic “pivot” to Asia that has so far been largely portrayed in military terms, and seen as an attempt to counter China’s growing influence in the region. Under the Obama administration, the United States has sought to increase its involvement in Asia-Pacific multilateral institutions like the ASEAN Regional Forum as part of a strategy of “forward-deployed diplomacy” to demonstrate its commitment to engagement with the region.



For more information on the ASEAN meetings in Cambodia, please see the following news sources:

BBC – “Asean talks: US and China pledge to co-operate on Asia

Reuters – “U.S. urges China to open talks on South China Sea

Reuters – “ASEAN urges South China Sea pact but consensus elusive

Wall Street Journal – “Clinton Urges Continued Talks on South China Sea

Voice of America – “South China Sea High on ASEAN Agenda


For Chinese language commentary on the ASEAN Regional Forum and the South China Sea disputes, please see the following news sources:

Caixin (财新网) – “外交部:中方愿以和平方式解决南海争议

Xinhua (新华网) – “杨洁篪出席第19届东盟地区论坛外长会



Compiled and edited by Amanda Watson.