Asean members need to do a better job at high-level meetings in preventing another South China Sea storm from cracking their cohesion and credibility. Disputants have made their positions quite well known to China on other occasions.
There was no need to overshadow pressing summit business in trying to advance or protect claims. Coming so publicly and soon after their foreign ministers' unprecedented failure to issue a communique four months ago, the disagreement at the Asean Summit is doubly damaging. It is also a test of Asean unity that other Asean countries, whether in the chair or not, can resist any external pressure to provoke.
There is no lack of reason for Asean to stay united. Achievements outnumber setbacks. Differences over how to handle maritime claims with China should not distract Asean from commitment to centrality and its role in promoting peace and stability in the region. Thankfully, despite the recurring spat, leaders pledged to create an Asean Community in two years as well as to continue enhancing economic integration.
When Asean unity is tested, member states should not forget they have much to lose. Moreover, the growing Asean+ architecture offers them additional security advantages as well as more economic opportunities. For example, at the East Asian Summit that Asean held with six major countries last week, leaders reaffirmed commitment to functional cooperation in maritime security as well as connectivity, finance and health care. Trust and confidence can only grow with the expanding and overlapping web of cooperation within and beyond the region.
It is a fact of realpolitik that Southeast Asia has historically been an arena of big-power rivalry. That potential, unfortunately, remains even if protagonists and ideologies have changed since the Cold War. Asean as a group should not take sides. Individual members must learn to manage relations with bigger partners or challengers without dragging Asean into any of their disputes.
Big powers, too, have an interest in helping Asean maintain centrality. The generally positive attitude of China and the United States towards Asean is testimony to the region's rapid and robust growth. There is much mutual advantage in joint efforts to enlarge free trade and investment. The world's two biggest economies stand to gain from a peaceful and prosperous Asean and vice versa.
So, both China and the US should not jeopardise relations with or within Asean. If the two powers endeavour to be partners rather than adversaries, Asean countries will have more room to manoeuvre - and to avoid embarrassing quarrels like the one in Phnom Penh last week.
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