Host Cambodia was blamed when, for the first time in Asean's history, its foreign ministers failed to issue the customary joint communique following their meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012. That spectacular departure from tradition was caused by differences over mentioning bilateral maritime disputes with China in the statement. China, which has close ties with Cambodia, was seen widely as the chief beneficiary of dissension in Asean. Now, the tables appear to have been turned, with Beijing reprimanding Asean Secretary-General Le Luong Minh for having said that Asean had to "get China out of the territorial waters" of Vietnam before formal talks could proceed in the South China Sea dispute.
Beijing's argument, that the comments are inconsistent with the secretary-general's role, will resonate with those who believe that the leader of a regional grouping should not use the influence and dignity of his office to advance what essentially are national interests - in this case Vietnam's. His action has given a fillip to supporters of China, who note that the maritime dispute is not a China-Asean issue since Asean as a group is not claiming any territory. Hence, they argue, Mr Minh, who once served as Vietnam's deputy foreign minister, was wrong in investing the Vietnamese stand with the borrowed aura of an Asean position.
Much as the Phnom Penh failure reminded Asean members of the need to act together, the latest episode reiterates the importance of the association remaining neutral in its members' bilateral disputes. Indeed, Asean's credibility in engaging China depends on this neutrality. Asean is justified in adopting a common position on the South China Sea issue because it affects the grouping's common economic and security interests. However, these institutional interests are separate from the bilateral claims of its members, on whose merits Asean takes no stand. This distinction is essential and should be upheld. Asean should not give China reason to treat it as a hostile regional entity. A code of conduct for the South China Sea remains a possibility, but the likelihood of reaching such an agreement depends on Beijing remaining engaged in the discussions.
But Asean neutrality should not and does not mean caving in to Chinese maritime assertiveness. Beijing incurs needless diplomatic costs every time it ups the ante in its bilateral disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines in a way that could affect Asean as a whole. China-Asean ties benefit both. That is one reason why South-east Asian countries would be loath to choose sides between China and its rival powers. Beijing must not give regional countries cause to change this mindset.