US President Obama was hard pressed to play the pacifist at a rather fractious ASEAN summit in Cambodia, where discussions on the maritime disputes of some of the grouping's 10 members with China boiled over. The three-day annual summit of the Association of South-East Asian Nations concluded on 20 November without resolving the dispute between these countries and a by far militarily superior China. The impasse thwarted the 45-year-old grouping's efforts towards deepening cohesion within this economically vibrant region and its aspirations of transforming itself into an EU-like community by the end of 2015.
Beijing's claims of sovereignty over almost the entire South China and East China seas have sparked disputes with its neighbours such as Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam. Apart from Japan and Taiwan, the rest are ASEAN member countries, as also Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand. The bone of contention has been the various island enclaves, not of much value in themselves, but the possession of which would provide strategic, resource-rich continental shelves and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) that extend 200 nautical miles from the low-water shoreline.
Neither the United States nor China is a member of ASEAN, but each has votaries in the group. The flashpoint at the summit was the draft statement of the chairman - Cambodia, a staunch ally of Beijing - that pointed to a consensus against internationalising the South China Sea issue. This agitated the representatives of the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia and Singapore. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, in particular, rose to challenge what he said was Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's attempt to preclude any debate on the territorial disputes and divert the focus onto economic issues instead.
Cautioning against allowing such disputes to escalate, Obama urged the gathering to take steps to ease tensions. He, however, avoided any talk on this issue in his meeting with outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on the last day of the summit. Washington has nevertheless advocated a "code of conduct" that would avert any clashes in the disputed territories.
China has long held the position that whatever disputes that may arise should be resolved through consultations and negotiations by the concerned sovereign states. In Phnom Penh it, however, said it was open to debating the issue within ASEAN, though without the involvement of any other parties, an oblique reference to the United States.
Coincidentally or not, China's maritime disputes with its neighbours in the littoral have been gaining global attention ever since Obama's announcement in January 2012 of his country's "pivot" strategy in the Asia-Pacific. These developments are posing a threat to this fastest growing economic region in the world and its vital waterways, confounding diplomatic efforts, rousing hostilities and heralding a geopolitical power struggle between the world's two leading economies - the United States and China.
Further, anti-Japan street protests swept across China in September as the two largest economies in Asia sparred over a disputed island territory in the East China Sea which each claimed as its own. Potentially vast gas and oil fields have been estimated off the shores of the island, called Diaoyu by China and Senkaku by Japan. The two neighbours strove to keep the naval conflict from spiralling, mindful of their entrenched commercial ties that have resulted in two-way trade reaching a record $345 billion last year, China being the biggest trading partner of Japan.
While the Asia-Pacific has hitherto been driven by commercial interests, the widening unrest in the sea lanes that are the lifeline of this region may eventually compel the validity of a military front on the lines of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Much in the manner in which China's growing might is being perceived today, the 28-member NATO had been founded in 1949 in response to the threat posed by the Soviet Union, with its prioritised purpose having been to deter Soviet expansionism. NATO had codified cooperation in military preparedness among the allied signatories by stipulating that "an armed attack against one or more of them... shall be considered an attack against them all".