By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
In one of the most embarrassing moments in its four-decade history, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ended its annual talks in Cambodia this week without issuing its traditional joint statement due to deep divisions over a South China Sea territorial dispute with China.
The unprecedented action underscores the extent to which the long-running maritime dispute has dampened solidarity within the 10-member ASEAN grouping and China’s expanding influence in the region as it flexes its economic and military muscle.
It also throws into doubt a decade-long effort to devise a code of conduct to contain any military conflict over fishing, shipping rights, or oil and gas exploration in the resource-rich South China Sea, which is also home to vital shipping lanes.
ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan called the meeting outcome “very disappointing” while Marty Natalegawa, the foreign minister of Indonesia who tried but failed to forge common positions said it was “irresponsible” for the group to skip a joint statement for the first time in its 45-year history.
“To show solidarity, it is important to remind China that this is a vital issue for ASEAN and that ASEAN members who are not parties to the dispute share the concerns of their neighbors who are,” said Richard Cronin, the director of the Southeast Asia program at the Washington-based Stimson Center.
“But if you overshoot the mark and look divided that is not a good outcome,” he told RFA.
ASEAN unity is seen as critical in the face of rising tensions in the South China Sea, Asia’s biggest potential military flashpoint.
China said last month it had begun “combat-ready” patrols in waters it said were under its control while the United States announced that it will shift the bulk of its naval fleet to the Pacific Ocean by 2020 as part of a new strategic focus on Asia.
Beijing claims sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea but ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei have overlapping claims in the area, which is believed to contain vast oil and gas reserves.
The ASEAN meeting in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh has been intense and stormy at times as the political, economic and security agenda was hogged by the South China Sea dispute, diplomats said.
China’s key Southeast Asian ally Cambodia, the 2012 ASEAN chair, decided against issuing a joint statement after the Philippines and Vietnam, which have territorial disputes with Beijing, insisted that the communique include a specific reference to Beijing’s alleged encroachment in their respective exclusive economic zones and continental shelves, the diplomats said.
Some ASEAN diplomats said China used its mighty influence over Cambodia to prevent any statement that may be damaging to Beijing but Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong rejected the suggestion, saying his government does not support any side in the dispute.
“I requested that we issue the joint communique without mention of the South China Sea dispute … but some member countries repeatedly insisted on putting [in] the issue of the Scarborough Shoal,” Hor Namhong told reporters in Phnom Penh.
A standoff at the Scarborough Shoal, a horseshoe-shaped reef in waters that both China and the Philippines claim, began earlier this year when Manila accused Chinese fishermen of poaching in its exclusive economic zone, including the shoal. Both sides sent government ships to the area.
The Philippines has withdrawn its vessels from the area, but Chinese government ships have remained at the shoal, which Beijing claims to have owned since ancient times.
Vietnam has faced its own problems with China over the South China Sea issue, mostly resulting from Beijing’s detention of Vietnamese fishermen in disputed waters. Hanoi has also protested a recent announcement by the state Chinese oil company opening nine oil and gas lots for international bidders in areas overlapping with existing Vietnamese exploration blocks.
Both Vietnam and the Philippines have sought greater U.S. engagement in the region to help develop and enforce their maritime rights, prompting Beijing to take a more assertive position over the South China Sea dispute, analysts said.
As the dispute accelerates, some wonder whether ASEAN has become a victim of increasing rivalry between the United States and China in the region.
“It was indeed unprecedented for an ASEAN Ministerial Meeting to end without a joint communique. However, this was an internal ASEAN problem and, officially, no outside power was responsible for it,” former ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino told RFA.
Severino sees challenges facing ASEAN as a grouping but said that while it may lack consensus on some issues, by and large the member states agree on the “diversification of relations.”
ASEAN remains “neutral and equidistant in terms of China and the U.S., avoiding having to choose between the great powers,” said Severino, now head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Still, ASEAN must get its act together to devise a mechanism to prevent the South China Sea dispute from blowing up.
Member states said earlier this week that they had drafted a set of rules governing maritime rights and navigation in the sea and procedures for when governments disagree.
They have since presented their proposal to China in a bid to formulate a legally binding code of conduct to prevent any armed conflicts.
Beijing will consider the proposal but negotiations for a code of conduct will only be launched when “conditions are ripe,” Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi Yang said.
Washington is pushing ASEAN and China to make “meaningful” progress toward finalizing the code based on international law and agreements.
“This will take leadership, and ASEAN is at its best when it meets its own goals and standards and is able to speak with one voice on issues facing the region,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In remarks clearly aimed at China, she said that it was important that the dispute be resolved “without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and without use of force.”
There may still be a silver lining in the ominous cloud over ASEAN’s failure to hammer out its basic document.
It “could enhance the prospects for reaching agreement on a COC (code of conduct) because China is less likely to feel that all the ASEAN member states are ganging up against it,” Robert Beckman, director of the Center for International Law at the National University of Singapore, told Bloomberg news agency.
“There is still a common view that we must, if anything, reinforce our efforts to work on the COC, to begin our talks with the Chinese on the COC,” Indonesian foreign minister Natalegawa said.