ASEAN’s 54th Foreign Ministers Meeting of August 2, held on-line and chaired by Brunei Darussalam in its capacity as ASEAN Chair for 2021, represented one of the most significant diplomatic events of the region this month.
Followed by several other notable meetings, i.e. 22nd ASEAN Plus Three (+3) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, Meeting of the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) Commission, 23rd ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) Council Meeting, 29th ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC), ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting Interface with ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) Representatives, ASEAN – ROK Ministerial Meeting, ASEAN – China Ministerial Meeting, ASEAN – Japan Ministerial Meeting, ASEAN – U.S. Ministerial Meeting, ASEAN – Australia Ministerial Meeting (Co-Chair), ASEAN – Russia Ministerial Meeting, 11th East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, ASEAN – Canada Ministerial Meeting, ASEAN – New Zealand Ministerial Meeting, ASEAN – India Ministerial Meeting, ASEAN – European Union (EU) Ministerial Meeting and 28th ASEAN Regional Forum, it showcased ASEAN’s Centrality in Southeast Asia and its growing role in the wider Indo-Pacific region.
According to the Joint Communique of the ASEAN’s 54th Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, several developments have been registered compared to the previous years.
One of the most significant is the consolidation of ASEAN’s view on multilateralism as “multilateral cooperation to effectively address current as well as emerging global and regional challenges of common concern and areas of mutual interest”. In this regard, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to “upholding and promoting multilateral cooperation, anchored in international law, towards achieving peace, security, stability, and prosperity in the region and beyond.” In a typical ASEAN-key, the meeting reaffirmed its “commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security, and stability in the region, as well as to the peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)”, hence stressing the importance of upholding the Maritime Law, perhaps as a reference to the international issues in the South China Sea. Thus, it might have been in this key that, in relation to the “strength” and “value” of multilateralism, the Joint Communique mentioned “rules-based nature” as a fundamental principle, along with “inclusivity”, “mutual benefit and respect”.
Following ASEAN’s commitment on upholding multilateralism, a strong emphasis has been put on the importance of the “Treaty of Amity and Cooperation” (TAC) – the key code of conduct in governing inter-state relations in the region, as well as the Dialogue Partnerships, a sui generis – and highly engaging – form of ASEAN’s External Relations. In this regard, the Communique welcomed the growing interest of non-regional countries to accede to TAC and looked forward to the accession of the Kingdom of Denmark, the Hellenic Republic, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Sultanate of Oman, State of Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
In a much awaited move, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers “agreed to commence a comprehensive review of the moratorium on new dialogue partnerships (...) and advance ASEAN’s relations with external parties based on the principles of strengthening ASEAN Centrality, openness and inclusivity”. A positive development in this direction was granting the status of dialogue partner to the United Kingdom. Naturally, with UK added to the existing list of Dialogue Partners (i.e. Australia, Canada, China, European Union, India, Japan, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States of America) and the current moratorium under “comprehensive review”, ASEAN not only favours multilateralism at a discursive level, but similarly opens pragmatic ways of consolidating it.
It is undoubtedly the same direction that marks ASEAN’s Maritime Cooperation. In a paragraph significantly more consistent than the views expressed in the joint statements of the previous Foreign Ministers’ meetings, ASEAN further encouraged its member states to “intensify cooperation in promoting maritime security, safety and freedom of navigation and overflight.” Indeed, as the Communique noted, the United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/RES/75/239 emphasized the “the universal and unified character of the 1982 UNCLOS” and reaffirmed that “the Convention sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out.” In this regard, ASEAN seems to sets out that, while cooperation is of paramount importance for the regional organisation, there will be no discussion with regard to reconsidering the norms of maritime law.
Obviously, beyond ASEAN’s regional dimension lies its Indo-Pacific vocation. In this regard, in a similar note to ASEAN’s call for multilateralism, the paragraph dedicated to the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific encourages “external partners to support and undertake cooperation with ASEAN, in accordance with the principles contained in the Outlook”. It is for the first time that such an encouragement has been officially conveyed through a Joint Statement of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, which further adds weight to the regional organisation’s openness and transparency with regard to its multilateral approach, while seeming to indicate reluctance toward unilateral action of third parties in the Indo-Pacific.
While the items presented in the “Regional and International Issues” sub-section of the Communique have not changed compared to the previous years, several notable dynamics need particular attention. With regard to the South China Sea, it worth being noted that, while the Foreign Ministers “warmly welcomed the continuously improving cooperation between ASEAN and China” and were “encouraged” by the “progress of the substantive negotiations towards the early conclusion of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) consistent with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS”, the Communique continued to express “concerns” with regard to “the land reclamations, activities, serious incidents in the area, including damage to the marine environment, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions, and may undermine peace, security, and stability in the region.” Indeed, the document, placing South China Sea as the first on the list of ASEAN’s “Regional and International Issues”, signals that much is expected on behalf of China in its relation to ASEAN.
A debut has also been registered in ASEAN’s “readiness to play a constructive role, including through utilising ASEAN-led platforms such as the ARF in promoting a conducive atmosphere to peaceful dialogue amongst the concerned parties (a.n., in the Korean Peninsula)”. Indeed, the regional’s organisation’s willingness to play a constructive role in the Korean peace-talks has never been more openly expressed, further stressing on ASEAN’s growing role in the Indo-Pacific, as a balanced and multilateral force.
Naturally, the progresses achieved by ASEAN toward the cessation of violence in Myanmar have been recalled, particularly Myanmar’s commitment to the Five-Point Consensus of the ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting in April 2021 and the recent appointment by the ASEAN Chair of the Special Envoy of the ASEAN Chair on Myanmar.
Notably, one may infer that the 54th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting further consolidates the regional organisation’s take on multilateralism, making significant steps toward international cooperation, while upholding the universal character of international law. The consideration of the moratorium on Dialogue Partners, as well as the association’s readiness to play a more constructive role, reconfirms not only ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific vocation, but similarly its paramount importance in addressing the geo-strategic architecture in 21st century Asia.
Clearly, the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting plays an agenda setting role for the ASEAN Summit, scheduled in Bandar Seri Begawan at the end of October 2021. This year, the Summit may mark a new milestone in ASEAN’s development: while continuing the ASEAN Centrality, the regional organisation may bolster the Indo-Pacific Multilateralism.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA.