Southeast Asian nations were deadlocked on Sunday over how to confront sabre-rattling in the South China Sea as pressure from Beijing again drove a wedge between countries on the region’s most contentious security issue.
The gathering in Vientiane is the first time regional players — including China and the United States — have met en masse since a UN-backed tribunal delivered a hammer blow to Beijing’s claim to vast swathes of the strategic sea.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) boasts four countries who have competing claims with Beijing over parts of the strategic sea and is fiercely divided on the issue.
Rival claimants have accused China of deftly forging alliances with smaller countries like Laos, this year’s host, and Cambodia through aid and loans to divide the the once consensus-driven bloc.
Chinese pressure was blamed last month for a startling show of ASEAN discord when countries swiftly disowned a joint statement released by Malaysia after an ASEAN-China meeting.
That statement had expressed alarm over Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea. Cambodia and Laos were later fingered as being behind moves to block the joint statement.
Those divisions were on stark display once more in the Laos capital with insiders accusing Cambodia of scuppering moves to include a response to the tribunal ruling in a joint communique, expected at the end of Sunday’s meeting.
“We need to put our house in order,” one diplomat involved in discussions told on Sunday. “But we still have not agreed on anything.”
Another ASEAN diplomat added: “We remain deadlocked. We’re back to the negotiating table.”