When the Indonesian delegation flew into Phnom Penh for the ASEAN and East Asian Summits late last week President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was hoping that there would be no repeat of the diplomatic events that marred a similar meeting of regional foreign ministers in July.
Back then a split emerged in the 10-member trading bloc over how best to deal with China and the growing tensions over conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea.
As the political heavyweight of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), last time Jakarta managed to patch-up some of the differences after an emergency round of shuttle diplomacy by the country's foreign minister.
Wanting to maintain a united front from the start at this meeting, the focus was to be on attainable goals like the final signing of the ASEAN Declaration on Human Rights and promoting the framework for the Asian Bond Market Initiative. More importantly was the arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama and Washington reorienting its strategic outlook towards Southeast Asia.
These intentions notwithstanding, already by Monday ASEAN talks had broken down into squabbling over the Spratly and Paracel Islands, highlighting the deepening and seemingly intractable divisions within the group.
"There's an elephant in the room and its name is China," one analyst remarked.
The islands are claimed entirely by China while Vietnam and Taiwan also claim the Paracels. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, The Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also have conflicting claims over the Spratlys through which about half of the world’s sea-borne trade passes.
The current diplomatic spat began on Sunday when the Cambodian government, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, declared all 10 ASEAN members were indeed united and had agreed not to internationalize their disputed claims. This statement not coincidentally fit well with China’s interest in negotiating with ASEAN member on a bilateral basis.
But 24 hours later The Philippines and Vietnam contradicted Hun Sen's remarks with Philippine President Benigno Aquino saying no such agreement had been reached and the Cambodian leader was wrong to promote an ASEAN consensus on the issue.
"While the Philippines was for ASEAN unity, it has the inherent right to defend its national interests when deemed necessary," Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario later told reporters, quoting Aquino.
Cambodia has benefited enormously through soft loans and financial aid from China over recent years leading to charges that Phnom Penh — ASEAN’s host this year– was more interested in pushing Beijing's agenda than standing by its fellow ASEAN members.
Those charges initially came to a head at the July meeting when ASEAN split while attempting to finalize negotiations on the Code of Conduct (COC), a legally binding document on dispute resolution in the South China Sea. Talks broke down and ASEAN also ended that summit without an official communique, an embarrassing diplomatic blunder and a first for the bloc in its 45-year history, prompting Indonesia’s diplomatic intervention.
Indonesia’s role within ASEAN is often understated. It remains the region’s powerhouse and its patience for bickering over the COC and the inability of members to reach an agreement on a dispute that goes to the heart of sovereign claims inside the bloc must be wearing thin.
Any further breakdown in communications will probably require a deft hand from Jakarta, again. As such perhaps the time has arrived for Indonesia to take permanent control of COC negotiations and and in doing so remove the potential for pro-China members of ASEAN from having any undue influence.