ASEAN yesterday failed for the first time in its 45-year history to produce a joint communiqué after days of heated debate saw the 10-member grouping split over China and the South China Sea disputes.
The joint statement serves as a blueprint and agenda for subsequent meetings, including the ASEAN summit later this year. But yesterday, as the five-day ASEAN foreign ministers and regional security meetings closed, it failed to appear, with most member states blaming the chair, Cambodia.
Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam called the lack of an accord "unprecedented" and a "severe dent" on ASEAN's credibility.
He told reporters: "ASEAN has gone through many more challenging times and yet we have always managed to... at least reach a level of consensus which reflects the lowest common denominator."
He said it was a blow to ASEAN credibility that it was "unable to deal with something that's happening right here in our neighborhood and say something about it".
He added: "There's no point in papering over it. There was a consensus among the majority of countries. The role of the chair in that context is to forge a complete consensus amongst all. But that did not happen."
Days of wrangling had ended in acrimony yesterday when the chairman, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, lashed out at "some countries" for "holding the joint communiqué hostage to their bilateral disputes"
The minister meant the Philippines and Vietnam, which are among the four ASEAN countries - including Brunei and Malaysia - that have conflicting claims with China in the South China Sea.
The Philippines and Vietnam wanted the joint statement to include a recent stand-off between Manila and Beijing at Scarborough Shoal as well as exclusive economic zones and continental shelves.
Most ASEAN members supported this inclusion, which would not be the first reference to the South China Sea. But the chair flatly refused, even to the point of almost walking out of yesterday's last- ditch effort to salvage the communiqué.
Other ASEAN officials at the meeting said the grouping had a history of discussing the South China Sea and if it could make remarks of concern on issues such as the Middle East, it made no sense that it could not talk about an issue in its own backyard.
Sources who attended the meetings, asking not to be named, said Cambodia's position was identical to China's. Beijing's position of negotiating bilaterally puts smaller states at a disadvantage.
The chair's position was a sharp deviation from a longstanding ASEAN one of negotiating with China as a bloc as the disputes involve four ASEAN members.
The chair had used its position virtually like a veto, a Filipino official said. "This is Cambodia's position, not ASEAN's position."
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said ASEAN had to look forward. "Once the dust settles and once emotions cool, we have to ask ourselves 'what next?'...We need to be clear. What is ASEAN's interest in this issue? We need to assert our centrality." He said Indonesia would never allow ASEAN to lose its centrality in the region because "there is too much at stake here, more than simply the South China Sea".
Echoing him, Shanmugam said: "It is in our core interest to make sure ASEAN is strong and credible in terms of security as well as economic interests. ASEAN countries will have to come together and try and see how we can move on...and try and recover from this".