By all accounts, this week's meeting of Asean foreign ministers fell into what has become a predictable pattern of disagreement over a joint stand to address Chinese claims to most of the South China Sea. The inevitable climbdown was sparked by one member - itself not a claimant state in the dispute - steadfastly standing in the way of naming the mainland. The holdout was again Cambodia, whose persistent opposition to anything inimical to China's position had wrecked the Asean summit in 2012. Not coincidentally, it had just won a US$600 million (S$811 million) soft loan from Beijing, adding to the billions it had received previously from that major power.
That said, the Asean states, including those directly involved in the dispute - Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines - can draw an element of satisfaction from the Vientiane meeting. A key paragraph in the lengthy communique spoke of a shared commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes, including "full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law". By not specifically mentioning the ruling of an arbitral tribunal at The Hague, yet calling for states to abide by international law, Asean believes it has successfully forged a consensus and can now look to reset roiled ties with China.
Can it really? Being positive about relationships with nations, especially one as vital to Asean as China, is doubtless important. Yet it cannot be ignored that by blatantly disregarding the tribunal ruling, China has shown scant respect for principles upheld by Asean. China is traversing from being the rule-taker it has been for the past seven decades to the rule-maker it is turning out to be. To sidestep controversy at this critical moment in the name of presenting a picture of a chimerical consensus portends poorly for the future. Asean would be better off replacing its current approach with majoritarian rulings, and name those that desire to distance themselves.
To be sure, Asean has good reason to be careful. A looming uncertainty for Asia is the American presidential election in November. A Hillary Clinton presidency would bring a measure of continuity to United States policy. But four years or more of Mr Donald Trump in the White House could bring plenty of uncertainties. These might arise because of his aggressive stance towards China, as well as his reluctance to continue providing a security umbrella for Japan and South Korea unless they pay for it. Given the mercurial nature of American politics, a Trump presidency cannot be ruled out. Hence Asean has plenty to worry about. Holding together stoutly, in the face of an assertive rising power and its distracted and divided rival, is a necessity that should dawn upon each and every member.