Straits Times: Minister, could you give us a rundown on what exactly happened and why?
Minister: What happened – there is no Joint Communiqué, as of now, and therefore I don’t think there will be one. This is really unprecedented in the history of ASEAN. ASEAN has gone through many more challenging times and yet, we have always managed to reach consensus to issue a Joint Communiqué, which will take into account the different viewpoints and at least reach a level of consensus which reflects the lowest common denominator. So it is extremely disappointing that we did not manage to issue a Joint Communiqué in this meeting.
CNA: Why was ASEAN not able to reach a consensus and release a Joint Communiqué?
Minister: Well, I think there is no point papering over it. There is a lack of political will. There was a consensus among a majority of countries. The role of the Chair in that context is to forge a complete consensus amongst all, but that did not happen here. I think the view taken by some was that, if anything was said, then that would mean taking sides. But the reality is, silence is deafening and silence is not neutral either. So, I think it is, as I said earlier, unprecedented. It is certainly negative. We tried very hard. In fact I was supposed to leave this morning. I cancelled my flight to stay back to continue to try, but we have not been able to agree on a Joint Communiqué. We are not a claimant state; neither is Indonesia, nor are most of the countries. But all of us are looking at it not in the context of this particular claim, but from the broader perspective of ASEAN and the importance of the Communiqué and the fact that the Communiqué covers many other areas.
ST: What are the implications for the Summit, a few months down the road?
Minister: Well, if you look at the consequences, there are a number of consequences in the failure to agree on a Joint Communiqué. First of all, of course, you asked me yesterday, does this affect credibility and I said that if we don’t issue a Communiqué, it would have an impact on credibility. I think, to put it bluntly, it is a severe dent on ASEAN’s credibility. We talk about issues in the world, in the past Communiqués, but we are unable to deal with something that is happening right here in our neighbourhood and say something about it. It is absolutely clear to all of us that we all will not take any sides on any disputes. That is out of the question. The question is whether we can come up with a consensus-form of reflecting a desire to move forward on these issues, in a way that is win-win for everyone. That is really what it is, and it is sad that we are not even able to agree on that. So, we talk about ASEAN centrality, ASEAN neutrality and ASEAN connectivity, ASEAN Community in 2015, but before all of that is the central issue of credibility. And as I said, I think this does affect our credibility.
CNA: So, Minister, will this derail ASEAN’s objective of a community in 2015?
Minister: I don’t want to get into that, I think we can deal with how it is today. You asked me about the Leaders’ Summit. ASEAN has a lot of promise, has been coming along quite well. Unfortunately, these events have, I think, impacted on ASEAN. The Joint Communiqué is 131 paragraphs, and the reason why I said it is affecting our credibility, is that it has got 131 paragraphs, the South China Sea is not the major part of it – it is a very small part of it. It covers many other areas, importantly: ASEAN Community, Initiative for ASEAN Integration, closing the development gap between those who are further up in the economic development and those who are behind, the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, the ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, and many more. All these are important topics. The leaders had met and had tasked the Foreign Ministers and senior officials to go ahead and work on these, so we had worked on them. This Communiqué would have dealt with all of these issues and also on continuing on the discussions on the Code of Conduct. But without the Communiqué, then the question is the next Leaders’ Meeting; when the Leaders meet, we would have not done what the Leaders had asked us to do, then the question is all of us have to think, what would the Leaders be discussing in the absence of a Joint Communiqué?
CNA: Minister, what is the implication for Singapore then?
Minister: Implications for Singapore. I have previously remarked that the international political environment is one where the rules often are unclear. Big countries, small countries; we are a small country and for us, the more rules there are – rules of engagement, the structured framework within which countries, for us of course particularly in the region have to operate - the better it is for us. Otherwise, the smallest country on the totem pole would be left without rules and so for long, for many years, we were one of the founding members of ASEAN, it is in our core interests to make sure that ASEAN is a strong and credible and in our security, as well as economic interests. Anything that affects ASEAN credibility therefore also affects our own perception of how the regional situation is. We need to think about it, and I think, ASEAN countries will have to come together and try and see how we can move on – because ASEAN is too important a project - to move on, to try and recover from this setback. Thank you.
CNA: Thank you very much, sir.
. . . . .
Watch the full doorstop interview with Minister Shanmugam here.