The foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations held an extraordinary meeting on July 13 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Earlier there they had expressed concern over territorial disputes over islands and reefs in the resource-rich South China Sea between certain ASEAN members and China. But — for the first time in ASEAN’s 45-year history — they failed on July 13 to issue a joint statement due to differences in opinion over China’s assertive naval and fishing activities there. The division casts a shadow over the bloc’s plan to create a regional economic community by 2015.

In the Cambodian capital, the ASEAN foreign ministers and their counterparts from six other countries including the United States, China and Japan, also attended a meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Among the ASEAN members, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have disputes with China over parts of the South China Sea. In a senior working level meeting on July 8, ASEAN and China had agreed to start talks on a legally-binding maritime code of conduct to manage the disputes. But on July 11, China’s attitude suddenly shifted and it refused to begin the talks. The ARF’s joint statement failed to mention the talks for the code of conduct, derailing an important chance for ASEAN and China to bring stabilization to the region.

In 2002, ASEAN and China adopted the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which called for a peaceful resolution to territorial disputes there. Under the declaration, the parties are to refrain from building residences or other structures on islands and reefs not yet possessed by any party. But this declaration lacks binding power and has not been effective.

In the Phnom Penh meetings, ASEAN succumbed to China’s tactic of putting off an agreement to start talks on the binding code of conduct and a rift developed among ASEAN members. China has been trying to deepen its ties with Cambodia — which served as chair this time — Laos and Myanmar through economic aid and investment. Chinese and Thai officials are also paying frequent visits to each other’s countries.

The Philippines demanded that the foreign ministers’ joint statement mention a recent standoff between Chinese and Philippine ships at the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by both countries. Vietnam, in response to China’s move to open offshore oil blocks to foreign companies in an area of the South China Sea within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, demanded that the declaration include respect for EEZs. But pro-China Cambodia rejected these demands.

The divisions among ASEAN members are advantageous to China. ASEAN members should realize that unity is indispensable in their negotiations with Beijing over South China Sea disputes. To this end, it is vital that they strive to build deeper and more trustful ties among themselves.

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