14th July 2012
The failure of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) to reach the usual “consensus” as well as issue a joint communiqué at the end of its meetings in Phnom Penh this week has put “a severe dent” on its credibility, according to Singapore’s Foreign Minister K Shanmugam.
This is the first such failure in the bloc’s 45-year history. Normally they manage to concoct some anodyne statement signifying nothing that they can all sign off on – so this failure underscores the deep divisions within the 10-member bloc exposed by the conflict over the resource-rich South China Sea between four of the pact’s members and China.
China will be delighted with this outcome as it demonstrates that it has successfully divided the bloc down the middle between those littoral states that find themselves increasingly at the mercy of China’s claims to almost the whole sea and the rest that see Chinese economic might as key to their own future.
Tension simmered throughout the week of meetings, culminating in the Philippines and Cambodia slamming each other on Friday, according The Cambodia Daily, when a flurry of last-ditch meetings over the sea failed to produce any resolution.
“To put it bluntly, it is a severe dent on ASEAN’s credibility. We talk about issues in the world in past communiqués, but we are unable to deal with something that’s happening right here in the neighbourhood and say something about it,” Shanmugam is reported as saying.
“This is strange territory for me,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters. “It’s very, very disappointing that, at this 11th hour, ASEAN is not able to rally around a certain common language on the South China Sea. We’ve gone through so many problems in the past, but we’ve never failed to speak as one.”
Participants had apparently earlier agreed on key aspects of a draft maritime Code of Conduct for the South China Sea but talks foundered when China insisted on its divide and rule strategy by insisting the ASEAN forum was not the appropriate place to discuss the matter. An emergency meeting called for early yesterday morning failed to break the deadlock.
The Philippines and Vietnam, both who wanted ASEAN to stake out a clear and united position on the issue, had asked that the communiqué to include a reference to a recent stand-off between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal claimed by both countries, according to ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan.
Following the meeting yesterday, The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs issued a statement lambasting host Cambodia for “consistently opposing any mention of the Scarborough Shoal.”
The failure to even produce a final communiqué now throws into doubt the capacity of the bloc to achieve it’s vaulted intention to achieve economic integration by 2015.