Although the motto of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is currently 'One community, one destiny,' the latest meeting testifies to the opposite.
Last week, a meeting between 10 Southeast Asian foreign ministers closed for the first time in 45 years without a concluding joint statement being issued. Cambodia, the host and current chair of ASEAN, blocked all attempts to mention the ongoing conflicts in the South China Sea, although Phnom Penh itself lays no claim to the disputed territories. For their part, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei refused to sign a declaration in which there was no mention of their conflicts.
These Southeast Asian nations have laid claim to parts of the South China Sea for decades, alongside Taiwan and also China, which claims the whole territory.
In 2002, the conflicting parties agreed in a memorandum to refrain from any conduct that could lead to a destabilization of the situation and a fragile peace reigned until 2011. However, the situation escalated when Vietnamese fishermen were arrested by Chinese authorities last year. It came to a head when Chinese expert Long Tao called in the Global Times, an important mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, for Vietnam and the Philippines to be taught a military lesson.
Right now, Chinese and Philippine naval units are involved in an ongoing standoff in the Scarborough Shoal.
Together we would be strong
"There is no common ASEAN position with regard to China," pointed out Gerhard Will, Southeast Asia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
Beijing has always tried to solve its conflicts on a bilateral basis and has thus been able to make the most of its significant political weight with regard to the comparatively smaller Southeast Asian nations.
In 2009, ASEAN members decided to go ahead and create a union according to the European model. It was decided that economic unification would be strengthened by 2015 thanks to closer cooperation at a political and socio-cultural level as well as regarding security. China now seems to have successfully prevented this. "The instrumentalization of Cambodia shows that China is still insisting that the conflicts be solved bilaterally," Will told DW.
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China has been offering cheap loans to Cambodia for years and investing massively in the country without calling on the government to improve its human rights record. According to a report in the Financial Times, last year China invested 10 times as much as the US in the Southeast Asian country.
The efforts have paid off, said Will. "Cambodia has clearly proved itself to be China's mouthpiece."
A serious test
"The consequences for ASEAN could be very severe," Will added. "The aim to create political unity and cooperate more on security policy has been moved to the backburner."
David Carden, the US ambassador to ASEAN in Jakarta, does not see the situation so pessimistically, saying that the events are actually encouraging because they show ASEAN is finally daring to broach controversial issues.
Just two days after the failure to publish a joint communiqué, ASEAN made an attempt to repair the damage. The Deputy of Secretary General (DSG) for Community and Corporate Affairs Bagas Hapsoro was invited to speak about issues and challenges of regional cooperation.
"All stakeholders must remember that the architecture of regional cooperation demands that ASEAN's future lies in its own hand," he said. "We must be able to solve the problem without becoming a 'test case' for bigger powers, and hence, regional centrality is essential."
This was a clear warning on his part that China should not get involved in ASEAN's affairs.
Author: Rodion Ebbighausen / act
Editor: Sarah Berning