ASEAN really hasn’t yet moved to be a community where the people feel more in common with each other than they do with outside.
— Carlyle Thayer

ASEAN’s failure to compile a basic statement about July's foreign ministers’ meetings have brought this week’s usually secretive back-room discussions to the forefront.

As the meetings concluded on Friday, the Philippines released a statement blaming Cambodia for the impasse. Cambodia holds this year’s chair of the regional bloc.

The Philippines, one of four ASEAN claimants to the South China Sea, wanted the joint communique to include mention of discussions regarding the Scarborough Shoal, a set of disputed islands in the body of water.

Cambodia, the statement read, “has consistently opposed any mention of the Scarborough Shoal at all in the joint communique and today announced that a joint communique cannot be issued.”

ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam all claim overlapping parts  of the South China Sea, along with Taiwan and China. But it’s China’s influence on the issue that has proven the most divisive to ASEAN members.

ASEAN 'a hostage' 

In a press conference following the meetings Friday, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong defended the chair’s decision. He said ASEAN should not be wading into bilateral territorial disputes—a position that dovetails with China’s views on the issue.

“Cambodia has taken a position of principle," he told reporters.

"We are not a tribunal to decide the dispute. Here at the meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers, we are not a tribunal to adjudicate who is right, who is wrong.”

Namhong instead suggested that ASEAN members with claims to the sea were attempting to hijack the process.

“The joint communique of ASEAN this time has become a hostage of the bilateral issues of some ASEAN member countries and China," Namhong said. "This is unacceptable. As a member of ASEAN, Cambodia cannot accept this, cannot accept that the joint communique has become a hostage of the bilateral issue.”

The South China Sea issue was one of many discussed by foreign ministers this week. But it proved to be the most divisive by far. The failure to come to terms on a joint communique is unprecedented in the history of ASEAN ministerial meetings , says Carlyle Thayer, a specialist on ASEAN affairs at the University of New South Wales.

“In this case it’s unprecedented because apparently, no one is agreeing to compromise. To not have a joint statement has just not happened before."

But Thayer says the failure to draft even a basic statement this week raises more fundamental questions for ASEAN.

“ASEAN has stood for being the guardian of Southeast Asia’s regional autonomy--trying to provide the insulation against the intrusion of great powers" he says. "What this indicates is that China has managed to break that insulation and influence one particular country. That’s going to affect any issues that begin to touch on China.”

Thayer says the issue may have exposed a rift between the ASEAN countries that have territorial disputes with China, and those that rely on the country for trade. Cambodia has received hundreds of millions of dollars in soft loans and investment from China.

“It’s really a question of whether ASEAN unity can be maintained … One of its pillars is to have a political security community. It makes a sham of all this because it shows that individual interests trump the collective interests, and that ASEAN really hasn’t yet moved to be a community where the people feel more in common with each other than they do with outside.“

Regional unity

Still, ASEAN ministers downplayed the issue while acknowledging their concern Friday. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa’s comments Friday were more tempered after he called the failure to reach a joint statement “irresponsible”, just a day earlier.

He told reporters Friday that the meetings had made him more inspired to push forward on an elusive ASEAN Code of Conduct, or COC, on the South China Sea dispute.

“If anything out of this meeting I am even more determined to really push for the COC, so all these side happenings becomes more contextual," he said. "Instead of the incidents, the tail wagging the dog, we should have a sense of purpose. We should move forward rather than being sidetracked by incidents.”

ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan stressed the need for members to move quickly on repairing what damage has been done.

“I can’t lay the blame on anyone," he said. "I think it’s a collective responsibility for us to try to find the solution to this. I consider it a major hiccup. And we will have to recoup from this hiccup very quick and very fast.”

Cambodia remains in the chair for the next ASEAN leaders’ summit, scheduled for November.

A news report originally filed for VOA.