By Irwin Loy
Southeast Asian foreign ministers have failed to hammer out a joint statement summarizing key regional meetings this week. Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations stumbled over how to deal with a simmering dispute in the South China Sea. The unprecedented impasse has left some officials pointing a finger at chair Cambodia, and it raises questions on the cohesiveness of the 10-member bloc.
ASEAN’s failure to compile a basic statement has brought this week’s usually secretive back-room discussions to the forefront. As the meetings concluded on Friday, the Philippines blamed the impasse on Cambodia, which holds this year’s chair of the regional bloc.
The Philippines, one of four ASEAN claimants to the South China Sea, wanted the joint communique to include mention of discussions regarding the Scarborough Shoal, a set of disputed islands in the body of water.
ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam all claim overlapping parts of the South China Sea, along with Taiwan and China. But it is China’s influence on the issue that has proven the most divisive to ASEAN members.
In a news conference following the meetings Friday, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong defended the chair’s decision. Speaking through a translator, he said ASEAN should not be wading into territorial disputes – a position similar to Chinese views of the issue.
“Cambodia has taken a position of principle,” he explained. “We are not a tribunal to decide the dispute. Here at the meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers, we are not a tribunal to adjudicate who is right, who is wrong.”
Namhong instead suggested that ASEAN members with claims to the sea were attempting to hijack the process.
The failure to come to terms on a joint communique is unprecedented in the history of ASEAN ministerial meetings , says Carlyle Thayer, a specialist on ASEAN affairs at the University of New South Wales.
Thayer also says the failure to draft even a basic statement this week raises more fundamental questions for ASEAN.
“ASEAN has stood for being the guardian of South East Asia’s regional autonomy. Trying to provide the insulation against the intrusion of great powers,” Thayer said. “What this indicates is that China has managed to break that insulation and influence one particular country. That’s going to affect any issues that begin to touch on China.”
Thayer says the issue may have exposed a rift among the ASEAN countries that have territorial disputes with China, and those that rely on China for trade. Cambodia has received hundreds of millions of dollars in soft loans and investment from China.
Still, ASEAN ministers downplayed the issue while acknowledging their concern Friday. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa’s comments Friday were more tempered after he called the failure to reach a joint statement “irresponsible”, just a day earlier. He told reporters that the meetings had made him more inspired to push forward on an elusive ASEAN Code of Conduct, or COC, on the South China Sea dispute.
“If anything out of this meeting I am even more determined to push for the COC, so all these side happenings becomes more contextual,” Natalegawa said. “Instead of the incidents, the tail wagging the dog, we should have a sense of purpose. We should move forward rather than being sidetracked by incidents.”
ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan stressed the need for members to move quickly on repairing what damage has been done.
“I can’t lay the blame on anyone, declared Pitsuwan. “I think it’s a collective responsibility for us to try to find the solution to this. I consider it a major hiccup. And we will have to recoup from this hiccup very quick and very fast.”
Cambodia remains in the chair for the next ASEAN leaders’ summit, scheduled for November.