At the earlier meeting, in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, foreign ministers could not agree on the wording of a final communique for the first time since the regional association’s founding in 1967.
Pitsuwan, Thailand’s former foreign minister and head of ASEAN’s secretariat since 2008, said in an interview that he was surprised by the breakdown in Phnom Penh, where the group’s customary low-key pursuit of compromise gave way to testy deadlock amid complaints of microphones being abruptly disconnected and allegations of backstage meddling by China.
The failure, Pitsuwan said , was “a wake-up call that these [security] issues will occur and we should be prepared to handle them.”
Cambodia, a close friend of China and the current holder of ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship, refused during the July gathering to accept pleas that the final communique include a mention of recent flare-ups in the South China Sea between China and two ASEAN members, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Manila and Hanoi accused Cambodia of putting its allegiance to Beijing ahead of its obligations to its regional partners and of pushing the 10-nation group to its most severe crisis in years. Cambodia, although heavily dependent on Chinese aid and investment, angrily denied acting on instructions from Beijing.
Tensions in the South China Sea, where five ASEAN members have claims that brush up against those of Beijing, are “becoming more and more of a stress on the system,” Pitsuwan said. That, he added, underscores the urgent need to make progress toward a stalled code of conduct for the disputed waters. The key, he said, is to “get around” questions of sovereignty and focus instead on practical measures to curb the risk of maritime clashes. But, he said, “this will take some time, because it is emotionally charged and extremely volatile. Positions are far apart, but eventually, we will get to a practical solution.”
Role as ‘insulation’
ASEAN, which is meeting near the ancient temples of Angkor Wat under the slogan “one community, one destiny,” has traditionally worked to paper over its differences. The risk of conflict in the South China Sea, however, has exposed the shortcomings of that approach at a time when China and the United States are stepping up their military and diplomatic activities in the region.