Can ASEAN Unite On South China Sea?

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Can ASEAN Unite On South China Sea?

At next week’s summits ASEAN leaders hope to avoid July’s failure. Can they?

The Philippines has fired its first political salvo at China and Cambodia ahead of upcoming regional summits, calling on the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to forge a united front over the South China Sea dispute.

Speaking to reporters ahead of the ASEAN and East Asia Summit, which is attracting leaders from around the world, Philippine President Benigno Aquino said ASEAN should speak with one voice, particularly given that four ASEAN countries have overlapping territorial claims in the sea.

"We can talk to the other claimants that aren't ASEAN members but since we want to maintain ASEAN's centrality, we must have just one voice in ASEAN,” he said.

China claims virtually the entire South China Sea and Aquino’s comments will almost certainly upset Beijing, which wants to deal with each of its disputed claims with ASEAN members on a bilateral basis. The Spratly Islands, located in the disputed territory, are also claimed in full or in part by The Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

China, Vietnam and Taiwan also have conflicting claims over the Paracel Islands.

Cambodia will also be angered by Aquino’s statement. As chair of ASEAN this year, it has sought to find an agreement on the Code of Conduct for dispute resolution in the South China Sea, known as the East Sea in Vietnam and the West Philippine Sea in the Philippines.

The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has benefited enormously from Chinese largesse in recent years and, consequently, has emerged as a key ally in Beijing’s strategy of forcing ASEAN members to deal with Spratly Islands disputes on a bilateral basis. China has refused to refer the matter to an international arbitrator.

Cambodia’s actions resulted in ASEAN failing to release a joint communiqué at the end of this year’s ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in July, the first time in ASEAN’s 45 year history in which a joint message failed to be issued. The Philippines and Vietnam had wanted this spring’s confrontation at Scarborough Shoal included, but Cambodia, at China’s behest, balked, leading to charges that Phnom Penh was putting China ahead of the ASEAN bloc.

Whether or not there is a repeat of the July debacle at next week’s summit, which leaders like U.S. President Barack Obama, China’s Premier Wen Jiabao, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will attend, remains to be seen.

There is some speculation in Phnom Penh that a joint communiqué for the summit is currently being negotiated, with the hope that it will be ready to sign by end of the heads of state meeting next week.

To build goodwill ahead of the summits, for instance, on Friday Indonesia proposed that ASEAN and China establish emergency lines of communication to prevent South China Sea crises from turning violent. An agreement such as this might allow the parties involved to issue a joint communiqué next week.

But given Manila and Beijing’s respective stances, any agreement on the Code of Conduct could be some time off.