The ASEAN summit of Southeast Asian nations in Cambodia failed to resolve long-festering territorial disputes in the region's resource-rich South China Sea, setting the stage for possible further conflict.
“Long live the bonds of friendship, solidarity and cooperation between the Kingdom of Cambodia and China!” read one of several large banners welcoming Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to Phnom Penh.
China was the only country that Cambodia – its close ally – saluted in such a manner, as regional leaders poured into the capital this week for a series of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meetings, at which festering territorial disputes in the South China Sea again took center stage.
For years, the South China Sea – known to contain a wealth of untapped resources, from oil and gas, to important minerals – has been a source of friction between ASEAN countries and China, which asserts ownership over a large portion of the sea.
China, Taiwan and ASEAN members Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei also claim sometimes overlapping parts of the sea, where clashes and standoffs between rival claimants have escalated in recent months.
During the East Asia Summit (EAS) on Tuesday (20.11.2012) – attended by newly re-elected US President Barack Obama – Philippine President Benigno Aquino III called on claimants to join a discussion to clarify the maritime claims and find a solution.
“At no time in the contemporary history of the South China Sea has clarification and delimitation of maritime areas become more urgent and imperative than they are now,” President Aquino said in a statement issued by the Philippine delegation.
Key declarations left hanging
However, as the summits concluded and the 10-year anniversary of ASEAN and China's signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) passed, the future of a joint code of conduct (COC) intended to bolster non-confrontational behavior in the sea was left hanging in the air.
Although ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan told reporters that the bloc was ready for formal talks with China on a Code of Conduct, intra-ASEAN discord was also apparent.
After ASEAN, summit chair Cambodia commented that the bloc had agreed not to “internationalize” the dispute. The Philippines – a US ally – declared that this was not their understanding and that two other countries agreed with them. Overall, analysts say that achieving a consensus within ASEAN on the South China Sea is proving difficult.
Sarah McDowall, Asia-Pacific senior analyst at IHS Global Insight, told DW via email that while recent tensions had renewed the incentive to work toward a code, the issue was complex. “None of the claimants are showing any inclination to soften their stance,” she said.
Speaking to reporters after the EAS, Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fu Ying, said Prime Minister Wen made it clear that China's defense of its territory was “necessary and legitimate”.
Carlyle Thayer, a political science professor at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia and expert on Southeast Asia, told DW that ASEAN and China would “dillydally” over implementing the Declaration of Conduct..
“If ASEAN members cannot take a unified stance on a matter that affects one of its members, then it indicates it has not yet built up a sense of community among its members,” Thayer said.
China, for its part, has expressed a desire to deal with the maritime disputes bilaterally, while others – including the United States – have advocated a multilateral approach.
McDowall noted that conflict within ASEAN was playing into China's hands. “[Beijing] wants to negotiate with these countries bilaterally because individually they are much weaker,” she said.
ASEAN includes Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei.
ASEAN at loggerheads
Disagreements over the handling of the South China Sea issue have played out at successive ASEAN summits this year, culminating in the bloc's failure to finalize a customary joint communiqué in Phnom Penh in July – a first in its 45-year history.
At the time, the Philippines said Cambodia opposed mentioning talks about the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the communiqué, despite backing from several ASEAN countries and the group's Secretariat, and announced that the statement could not be issued.
The incident dented ASEAN's credibility, and observers suggested that Cambodia was pushing the interests of China, which has poured loans and investment into Cambodia in recent years.
Thayer said Cambodia was playing a “spoiling” role. “ASEAN has set 2015 as the deadline for becoming an ASEAN Community based on three pillars - political security, economics and socio-cultural [heritage] and clearly Cambodia does not identify itself as part of the first pillar,” Thayer noted.
With maritime tensions having deepened throughout the past year, some have emphasized that consensus is more crucial than ever. However, analysts say the latest skirmishes only underline the chink in ASEAN's armor.
“Recent events underscore the inherent weakness of ASEAN, which has to take the position of lowest common denominator owing to the many differences among member countries,” McDowall said, warning that “the fault lines which became apparent at this week's ASEAN summit signal a continuation of the status quo."