ASEAN foreign ministers appear to be heading for deadlock at their meeting in Vientiane amid reports of heavy pressure from China over the recent South China Sea ruling.
Vietnam, the Philippines and others are pushing for a unified ASEAN response to the court ruling in the Hague, which on July 12 delivered a humiliating rebuff to Beijing over its territorial claims in the disputed waters.
However, reports suggest that Cambodia, a key Chinese ally, is likely to veto any joint statement that backs the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and challenges China’s growing presence in the area.
The first ASEAN meeting since the ruling looks set to underline the regional grouping’s long standing failure to agree a unified stance against China.
Vietnam welcomed the ruling at the Hague, which asserted, among other findings, that China’s claim to a vast perimeter in the South China Sea had no legal basis.
It has long sought solidarity with fellow ASEAN countries – of which the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei are party to the dispute with China – to present a united front against China’s increasing belligerence in the disputed waters.
ASEAN, however, suffered a major embarrassment last month when it was forced to withdraw a statement challenging China, following objections from Cambodia and Laos.
The grouping failed to release any statement at all after its meeting in 2012 following deadlock over the same issue.
Hanoi, meanwhile, continues to respond cautiously to the failings of ASEAN and to the legal setback suffered by China in The Hague.
It appears anxious not to provoke Beijing, which has condemned the ruling as invalid.
The People’s Liberation Army has stepped up naval exercises in the South China Sea and China has announced plans for regular visits by cruise ships to the disputed outcrops in the Spratly and Paracel islands.
Vietnam’s legal and moral position has received a significant boost from the legal case brought by the Philippines, but achieving real gains on the ground will be much more difficult given China’s intransigence.
The court’s ruling in favour of the Philippines over waters around the Spratly islands means Vietnam could expect a similar result if it decided to challenge China’s claim to rights around the Paracel islands further north.
However, Vietnam’s claim to resources and fishing rights around its outcrops in the Spratly chain were damaged by the ruling at The Hague. The arbitration panel concluded that none of the features in the archipelago could be classified as islands, and therefore had no claim to exclusive economic zones.
The arrival of the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, and the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, on the fringes of the ASEAN meeting will increase the stakes.
Neither side, however, appears keen to provoke further confrontation at the stage, with China content for now to secure continued deadlock in the ASEAN group.