JAKARTA - As South-east Asia's top diplomat ends his five-year stint, Dr Surin Pitsuwan warns that tensions in the South China Sea are potentially explosive and worse could lie ahead if Asean states do not close ranks.
The 63-year-old Asean Secretary-General leaves the job next month amid increased US-China rivalry in the region that has also put the Jakarta-based Asean secretariat he heads in the spotlight.
The former Thai foreign minister told The Straits Times: "The issue is very emotionally charged. If mishandled, it is potentially explosive and destabilising. All sides and all relevant parties must exert their utmost efforts to contain this potential 'fault line'."
But Dr Surin also detected a "sense of restraint from all parties" at last week's Asean Summit in Phnom Penh, his last as Asean chief before his successor, Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Le Luong Minh, takes over next year.
"Strong verbal exchanges were less (frequent) than (at previous summits) in Hanoi and in Bali. Passion is contained, decibels have been turned down," he noted during an interview at the secretariat.
"There is a higher sense of awareness that rising tension and open conflicts will serve nobody's interest. I expect more rationality and accommodation will prevail."
Simmering tensions over conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea reached its peak during July's summit, when the 10-member bloc failed to issue a joint statement for the first time in its 45-year history.
The episode dented Asean's credibility and exposed the extent to which national interests override the collective and the influence that big powers like China have in the region.
Four Asean states - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - are rival claimants, along with China and Taiwan, to territories in the South China Sea, a busy maritime thoroughfare thought to be rich in energy resources.
Asean watcher Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a visiting research fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, warned that tensions in the region could escalate given China's rising aggression in expressing its claims over disputed territories and the United States' insistence on exercising its "freedom of navigation" in the sea.
He noted that trust between Asean and China has weakened. "Hence, Asean wants to try to rebuild mutual trust with China by drafting the code of conduct (COC)" to manage the disputes.
However, he said, China does not think there is enough mutual trust for it to go into "such new political cooperation exercise with Asean".
Hence, the Chinese contention that the drafting could start only "when conditions are ripe", he said.
He added, however, that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's recent characterisation of the COC as a "natural progression of the DOC" - the non-binding Declaration of Conduct signed in 2002 to prevent conflict - indicated that Beijing was still giving consideration to the COC.
To Dr Surin, present tensions are an indication of the rising prominence of Asean economies and its political influence. He added that the incidents related to the South China Sea disputes have made Asean nations aware of how important it is to stay united.
"The stresses and the strains being put on the stage of Asean are getting rather heavy. But I look at it as a natural process because we are the only forum that exists officially in the region," he said, adding that the challenge is to balance between competing forces in the region.
"We can't expect (the big powers) to go anywhere else because there is no other 'where else'. Without economic success, potential, connectivity and new architecture we are building, then Asean would not have been that important," he said.
He pointed out that eight nations in the Group of 20 major economies are either in Asean or its dialogue partners.
Dr Surin brushed aside suggestions that Asean should not give the chairmanship of the grouping to member states seen to be partial - Cambodia, as this year's chair, has been seen to be siding with China in dealing with the South China Sea disputes.
In the end, Asean consensus will remain the basis for the region, he insists.
"This is not really a union but an association aspiring to become a community," he said.