Asean ministers ended a major regional security forum on Thursday having failed to agree on a code of conduct that would help reduce tension in the South China Sea.
The overlapping claims to the resources and waterways of the sea by China and a number of Asean states was one of a number of security issues that ministers dealt with.
But Indonesia’s foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, said failure to reach agreement on the code was “extremely disappointing.” Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan also echoed a similiar position.
“This time it’s a hiccup within the Asean group,” he said. “We could not find a common position on just one issue. The rest is OK.”
Asean countries had hoped to solidify a code of conduct that would then be negotiated with China. The declaration would not solve the overlapping claims issue but would outline protocols for ships’ behavior within the area.
Kao Kim Hourn, secretary of state for the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said all countries were committed to a “peaceful settlement of the dispute.”
“All the parties involved should be discussing this issue more,” he said. “But at the same time, they believe that what has been happening will affect regional peace, stability and security.”
Thursday’s meeting was attended by top diplomats from across Asia. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended as well, claiming the US would not take sides in the South China Sea issue but wanted peace and stability there.
Chheang Vannarith, executive director for the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said the US has interests in preventing conflict in the South China Sea, which has seen some tension in recent months.
The dispute can be hard to manage for Cambodia, which holds the rotating presidency of Asean this year, as some members of Asean are deeply involved and others aren’t, he said..
A code of conduct between the claimant states could prevent conflict for now, he said, but it won’t resolve the underlying issue. “If they use this tool to [try to] solve sea borders and sovereignty, it’s impossible,” he said.
Independent political analyst Lao Monghay said that regardless of the outcome of the code of conduct, the experience for Cambodia as a broker between China and Asean has been beneficial.
Still, solving the disputes over the sea will be hard, he said. That’s because China does not have an interest in settling them through international law.
“If problems are solved through international law, China will lose,” he said.
China’s argument is historical, and their stance is firm, he said.
China has proven reluctant to sign onto the code of conduct, and prefers to negotiate bilaterally, where it has the most power, analysts say.
Meanwhile, China has built strong relationships across the region, in countries like Cambodia, which could divide Asean countries.
That will now come against increased US engagement, Lao Monghay said, including direct aid in health, education and other fields beyond the current aid, mainly to the military.
Aside from the South China Sea issue, Asean ministers also sought to tackle the issues of the Korean peninsula and sanctions on Burma, an Asean member state.