The spectacular collapse of the conference of foreign ministers in Cambodia last week is a major setback for Asean. As the group's secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan said, it is a harsh lesson. Years ago, Mr Surin was one of the strongest voices in the region arguing against the outdated use of the so-called principle of non-interference to try to paper over tough decisions. Last week, Asean was so crippled by this outmoded rule of engagement that it was publicly humiliated and unable to engage.
It does not help that China is mostly to blame for the embarrassing end to the summit of Asean foreign ministers and a couple of dozen outside counterparts. Beijing's serial refusals to address the serious problems of territorial disputes in the South China Sea were well known before the Cambodia meetings. Asean's stated aim and its duty was to bring some order and stability to a problem that currently risks shooting wars between China and the Philippines, and between China and Vietnam. Failure was always possible, but the mortifying collapse of the talks is unacceptable.
The argument, which grew heated, was over the wording of a statement for the meeting. The Philippines and Vietnam insisted that the dispute be described, to include a confrontation between Manila and Beijing over a reef known as the Scarborough Shoal. Beijing angrily rejected its inclusion.
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