There is a good chance that history will repeat itself at this weekend's ASEAN Summit in Naypyidaw, Myanmar. This could be bad for ASEAN claims of unity and centrality, and for the fraying credibility of the ASEAN-brokered 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea as an effective diplomatic means to manage the territorial disputes between China and five ASEAN member states in these troubled waters.
In 2012, with Cambodia as host, the 45th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) failed for the first time in ASEAN history to issue an end-of-meeting joint communique, with the Philippines in particular (the weakest Southeast Asian state with a South China Sea claim, and one that has faced the most persistent Chinese coercion) incensed that Cambodia refused to include reference to the dispute in the rejected draft communique. Many suspected that Cambodia's close and asymmetric relationship with China was behind its un-ASEAN refusal.
A post-AMM period of intense shuttle diplomacy by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natelagawa led to a six- point statement on the regional grouping's position on the South China Sea that helped wipe some egg off the ASEAN face. But to the angst of those who support ASEAN centrality, the Philippines then took its growing dispute with China to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea rather than waiting for the 2002 Declaration to be transformed into a legally binding Code of Conduct, as was first hoped in 2002.
This time around, the stakes are higher.
Vietnam and China are embroiled in a serious dispute over the towing of a Chinese oil rig (with naval and air cover provided) to a position the Vietnamese claim is on their continental shelf, and the Philippines and China are in dispute over Ayungin Shoal and the recent arrest of 11 Chinese sea turtle poachers by the Philippines in waters close to Palawan, which China claims. China’s oil rig actions and the blocking of supplies to Philippine troops on Ayungin Shoal clearly contravene the spirit and letter of the 2002 Declaration.
An ASEAN Summit brings together the leaders of the ASEAN member states. If they follow in the footsteps of their foreign ministers in 2012 and fail to come out with a Summit statement that addresses the tensions and Chinese actions in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, the cracks could be too wide and deep to paper over again. The lack of a statement, or one that is viewed as too soft by the under-pressure Philippine and Vietnamese leaders, will likely encourage these states to further sideline ASEAN in their approach to their territorial disputes with China. They could also seek support together, and look to major external powers which share their concerns about Chinese actions in East Asia's disputed waters.
Pity Myanmar (another ASEAN member state with a close and asymmetrical relationship with China) its hosting duties.