On the rocks, again: Barack Obama courts a region at odds over the South China Sea
IF ONE word sums up the style of the ten-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), it is “consensus”. So when its meeting in Cambodia in July ended in open disagreement, many assumed it was an aberration. But even at the highlight of ASEAN’s calendar, the series of summits in Phnom Penh between November 18th and 20th, including the 18-member East Asia Summit, the group could not present a united front. A row erupted again over the same issue—how to manage China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea—and between the same ASEAN protagonists, the Philippines and Cambodia. ASEAN seems divided as never before, some think terminally.
The summit attracted leaders from China, India and Russia, as well as America’s re-elected president, Barack Obama. The row erupted when Cambodia, widely seen as China’s closest ASEAN ally, announced a consensus not to “internationalise” the festering dispute—ie, not to involve America. However, the Philippines, an American ally and claimant in the sea, rejected this, saying that it had “the inherent right to defend its national interests” by appealing to whichever international court or country it wants to. Vietnam was equally annoyed with Cambodia.
China claims sovereignty over almost all the sea, thought to hold vast reserves of oil and gas, as well as over the mostly tiny specks of land within it. Of ASEAN members, Vietnam claims all the Chinese-controlled Paracel islands to the north, as well as the contested Spratly chain to the south, where the claims of Brunei, Malaysia, and, especially, the Philippines, overlap with China’s