Observing the diplomatic maneuvering over the South China Sea issues in the runup to and including the July and November Bali summits was like watching a multi-act Shakespearian play unfold. The main protagonist was China, which was bedeviled by several nymphs — the counter claimants to the South China Sea islands and maritime space.

The critical scenes took place in Bali. First in July the main protagonist — China — met with all the nymphs (ASEAN). Then in the November meetings a second protagonist was introduced — the United States.

In the first act, China and ASEAN were able to compromise on a set of guidelines for implementing the ASEAN-China Declaration on Conduct in the South China Sea. Although it was weak, leaking and lacking specifics, its agreement was considered a diplomatic success. And then ASEAN wanted to work on a consensus draft of principles for a binding code of conduct. But alas, China did not think the timing was “appropriate” so ASEAN forged ahead on its own.

Meanwhile, China maintained — with some indignance — that it should not have to negotiate with countries that do not even have claims in the area like Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Singapore and Thailand. Naturally it prefers bilateral negotiations with its fellow claimants — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — which it can dominate in one on one session.

Predictably, it was strongly opposed to discussing the South China Sea in a multilateral forum. Nevertheless, the Philippines continued to try to form an ASEAN united front to negotiate with China, and, in particular, to get it to clarify its U-shaped claim. This strategy was publicly supported by the U.S., Japan and Australia. But the Philippines’ proposal to create a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation and to separate “disputed” areas from “nondisputed” areas was not supported by most other ASEAN members. This left open the possibility that the Philippines may — as it has proposed — take its concerns to the United Nation’s Law of the Sea Tribunal.

The situation was and is pregnant with potential conflict. Oil exploration in Chinese claimed waters is pending and several wells will be drilled next year. As a prelude to a climax, China has warned Vietnam, the Philippines and India (under license from Vietnam) against doing so.

Moreover, the plot is thickening as U.S.-China rivalry grows and ASEAN is increasingly in the middle. Worse, there has been a round of China-bashing in the U.S. and Japanese press, and some U.S. bashing in the Chinese press. Of course China has insisted that the U.S. had no business getting involved.

Just prior to the November Bali meetings, the political context changed dramatically when the U.S. announced its foreign and military policy “pivot” toward Asia including the “rotation” of up to 2, 500 U.S. troops air and naval assets through Darwin, Australia. This upset the strategic apple cart, inserting the U.S.-China rivalry into the ASEAN security paradigm and the efforts to achieve enduring peace in the South China Sea.

The U.S. has insisted that ASEAN must develop a “clear position” vis a vis China and that the competing claims must be settled in a multilateral forum according to therules of international law, including the Law of the Sea. Moreover, U.S. President Barack Obama said China must “obey the rules”. But China is expected to counter that the U.S. alone among major naval powers has not ratified that treaty.

As one Asian analyst put it, “pressure can be good; but too much pressure can crack the fragile security architecture and split ASEAN.” While several ASEAN countries supported the U.S. move, some had reservations. Predictably, the Philippines supported the U.S. “pivot” and involvement in the South China Sea disputes. But other ASEAN members were more wary, including Singapore and Malaysia.

Indonesia was alarmed. Its sea lanes and air corridors will presumably be used by the U.S. military to effectively patrol the South China Sea. In short, the game has changed. Not only has the U.S. move precipated a possible split in ASEAN, it has eroded ASEAN centrality in security policy in Southeast Asia. Unity in the East Asian Summit and on the South China Sea issues is under stress and may become subservient to the U.S.-China rivalry.

Moreover, the U.S. style may clash with that of ASEAN. It may attempt to drive the agenda and emphasize negotiations that produce results as opposed to ASEAN’s more patient laissez-faire approach, as well as its preoccupation with process sometimes, rather than concrete results. ASEAN is now facing perhaps its greatest challenge since its creation. Get ready for the next act in this fascinating political drama.

Mark Valencia, a former senior fellow with the East-West Center, is a maritime policy analyst.

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