It brings only sorrow to recall the July meeting of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Phnom Penh.
The ill-begotten gathering ended in such disarray that for the first time in almost half a century the region’s top diplomats could not even agree on the wording of a final communiqué.
Like naughty children in a nursery, they kept bickering to the bitter end and then ran home crying that it was all the other person’s fault.
While the episode reflected most badly on Cambodia, the association’s chairman this year, it also laid bare an astonishing degree of disunity among the 10 members.
And that is causing many in the region to worry that an even worse debacle may ensue at the full leaders’ meeting in November.
Eighteen heads of government are scheduled to descend on Phnom Penh for the 21st ASEAN Summit and the 7th East Asia Summit from November 18 to 20. It may be a good time to consider taking a holiday, for rest assured the capital is going to be horrendously locked down during those days.
But traffic snarl-ups and security hassles aside, what many fear is another nasty verbal altercation over sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.
This one would not just involve ASEAN members, but also the leaders of China, which claims virtually the entire sea, and the United States, which staunchly backs the multilateral approach of the association’s claimants.
Speaking in Jakarta last Monday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Southeast Asian nations to forge a united front to secure a peaceful resolution with Beijing over the maritime disputes.
Said Clinton: “We believe very strongly that no party should take any steps that would increase tensions or do anything that would be viewed as coercive or intimidating to advance their territorial claims.”
Naturally, Beijing, which has been gun-boating around the waters aggressively this year, and which favours dealing bilaterally with other claimants rather than with any “united front”, responded in kind.
Xinhua, its official news agency, berated Washington for meddling in these matters and for adopting a sinophobic stance on the sovereignty disputes.
“US politicians, who preposterously fancy they could do gold-digging in China and rein in China’s rise simultaneously, should remember the old saying that no one can have his cake and eat it too,” thundered Xinhua.
It went on to demand that the US should “stop its role as a sneaky troublemaker sitting behind some nations in the region and pulling strings”.
Belatedly, and not a little hypocritically, Clinton pleaded for moderation, saying: “It is time for diplomacy. We have the East Asia Summit coming up.”
Well, yes, we do, but already the train of verbal sabre-rattling has left the station and others have jumped aboard.
Last Thursday, Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong got into pre-EAS mode by warning China not to under-estimate the US and stressing that his country backs a multilateral approach to solve the territorial conflicts.
That stance, anathema to Beijing, will further rile chairman Cambodia, which, supported by Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, will back China and insist that the disputes be solved bilaterally.
That will not deflect Washington, of course. It will support the multilateral approach of claimants like the Philippines and Vietnam – and it will be backed by the remaining ASEAN members, including Indonesia.
In Jakarta last week, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa agreed with Clinton that an all-encompassing code of conduct for the South China Sea must be set up soon so that the sovereignty disputes can be settled peacefully.
Recalling the July ministerial fiasco, Marty said: “Absent a code of conduct, absent the diplomatic process, we can be certain of more incidents and tension for our region.”
It is the prospect of more “incidents and tension” caused by the self-evident and palpably deep-rooted disunity in ASEAN that makes participants at the coming November summit fear for the worst.
Contact our regional insider Roger at [email protected]