The special meeting of Asean and China foreign ministers, marking a quarter century of diplomatic ties, ended disastrously in Kunming this week. After hours of negotiations, it was clear that Asean was not willing to sign on the dotted lines marked by China. The major power sought to press upon the grouping a 10-point "consensus" that simply did not exist. Against this backdrop, Singapore's Foreign Minister, who was co-leading talks on behalf of Asean, chose not to appear with his Chinese counterpart, Mr Wang Yi, at a joint press conference. What was also frustrating for most members was Asean's inability to express serious concerns over maritime developments because these were apparently blocked by two members close to China. Such stratagems by a major power to script a show of support for its position has inevitably dealt a blow to trust and confidence. If the intention is to test the group's unity, it was accomplished in this case. The outcome was indeed a fiasco.
It is commonplace for a combination of military and economic power to be exerted to make weaker nations choose sides. A chequebook approach can buy influence in developing states, even those not party to a regional dispute. On a broad plane, China has remained Asean's largest trading partner since 2009. The flip side is that China needs access to Asean markets for its own economic health. This can be leveraged by Asean only if it holds together. But the contretemps in Kunming demonstrates again what can happen when a big power exploits fault lines within Asean for its own benefit. All it takes is one or two members to buckle - when they short-sightedly put self- interests above the strategic interests of the group - for Asean's exertions to appear farcical.
It is increasingly clear that, despite frequent expressions of commitment, a binding Code of Conduct with Asean on the South China Sea might remain a perpetual work in progress. That will allow a dominant player to settle the facts on the ground to its satisfaction. Island building and militarisation of disputed islands take some time, of course, and prolonged discussions can buy such time, at the expense of smaller claimants. Those who choose sides now must ponder their value to China as a spoiler within Asean when such a role is no longer needed should the grouping fall apart.
The only diplomatic edge of enduring value is the unity of Asean. That has undergirded its strategic efforts, since the end of the Cold War, to socialise big powers, via institutionalised forums, to international norms that serve the strong and weak alike. By taking sides with the powerful for the sake of foreign capital or falling prey to nationalistic impulses, Asean members risk being sidelined individually and collectively. The promise of a highly integrated Asean market and community risks running adrift on the South China Sea.