For the first time in 45 years, the Asean Ministerial Meeting (AMM) failed to agree to a joint communique, ostensibly because Asean’s current chair, Cambodia, did not want the communique to refer to bilateral disputes in the South China Sea. But the whole world, including most Asean countries, perceived Cambodia’s stance as the result of enormous Chinese pressure.
China’s victory proved to be Pyrrhic. It won the battle of the comminique, but it may have lost 20 years of painstakingly accumulated goodwill, the result of efforts such as the Asean-China free-trade agreement, signed in November 2002. More importantly, China’s previous leaders had calculated that a strong and unified Asean provided a valuable buffer against any possible US containment strategy. Now, by dividing Asean, China has provided America with its best possible geopolitical opportunity in the region. If Deng Xiaoping were alive, he would be deeply concerned.
China overplayed its power to get a short-term diplomatic win in Phnom Penh; very short term. The cost of Beijing’s ‘win’ was to galvanise ASEAN to a point of such anger that it tore up the final communiqué altogether. A bland document with the usual ASEAN-speak about ongoing dialogue would have been the usual ASEAN response. Instead, ASEAN is confronting its own purposes in a way that must have astounded Beijing even as much as it is surprising ASEAN itself.
What happened in Phnom Penh was a sign of how high the stakes have become. The diplomatic struggle reflects the power interests in play. A China that pushes so hard to win the communiqué argument is just as likely to overplay its naval strategy.