|ASEAN fails to reach consensus on South China Sea dispute
By Saifulbahri Ismail | Posted: 13 July 2012 1641 hrs
PHNOM PENH: For the first time in the history of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the regional grouping has failed to reach a consensus on a joint communiqué at its meeting in Phnom Penh.
Member states were not able to agree on how to deal with the issue of territorial dispute on the South China Sea.
Cambodia, which is the current chair of ASEAN, was unable to forge a consensus.
ASEAN’s foreign ministers have been trying to persuade China to sign a long-delayed code of conduct aimed at easing friction in the waters.
Singapore’s foreign minister K Shanmugam who attended the grouping’s meeting said it is extremely disappointing, and that it has put a severe dent on ASEAN’s credibility.
ASEAN members – Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia have made rival claims on the areas of the sea, where tensions recently increased.
China’s claims encompass almost the entire South China Sea.
Even though Singapore is not part of the claimant state, the republic’s fundamental interest is that there has to be freedom of navigation in the area.
Mr Shanmugam cited the lack of political will among ASEAN members to agree on the communiqué.
He said the joint communiqué is important as it not only covers the South China Sea issue.
Mr Shanmugam said: “There are a number of consequences on the failure to issue a joint communiqué. If we don’t issue a communiqué, it would have an impact on credibility of ASEAN. I think to put it bluntly, it is a severe dent on ASEAN’s credibility.
“We talk about issues in the world in past communiqués, but we are unable to deal with something that’s happening right here in the neighbourhood and say something about it. It is absolutely clear to all of us that we ought not to take any sides on any disputes. That is out of the question.
“The question is whether we can come up with a consensus or form of reflecting a desire to move forward on these issues in a way that is win-win for everyone. That’s really what it is. It is sad that we are not even able to agree on that. We talk about ASEAN centrality, ASEAN neutrality, ASEAN connectivity, ASEAN community in 2015, but before all of that, is the central issue of credibility.”
Mr Shanmugam also elaborated on the implications to Singapore.
“I have previously remarked the international political environment is one where the rules are often unclear between big and small countries. We are a small country and for us, the more rules of engagement and a structured framework within countries particularly in the region have to operate, the better it is for us. Otherwise, the smallest country on the totem pole would be left without rules.
“We are one of the founding members of ASEAN. It is in our core interest to make sure that ASEAN is strong and credible and in our security and economic interests. Anything that affects ASEAN credibility therefore also affects our own perception of how the regional situation is. We need to think about it. And I think ASEAN countries will have to come together and try and see how we can move on.”