Southeast Asian foreign ministers will hold crunch talks in Laos on Sunday at a summit already overshadowed by infighting over Beijing’s sabre rattling in the South China Sea.
The gathering in Vientiane that began on Sunday is the first major regional talks since the UN-backed tribunal ruled earlier this month that China did not have historic rights to vast swathes of the strategic sea.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who arrives in Laos on Monday, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi are among the delegates attending meetings on the sidelines of the summit.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes four members who have competing claims with Beijing over parts of the strategic sea, has long presented itself as the best place for China to negotiate with neighbours over disputes.
Beijing has resisted that approach, insisting that territorial disputes must be settled bilaterally.
In recent years, ASEAN has struggled to present a united front against China with allegations that the regional superpower has forged alliances with smaller countries like Laos and Cambodia through aid and loans.
“These 10 independent nations with independent relationships with China makes it very difficult for all of them to say yes to a communique, particularly when it’s a very dicey topic like the South China Sea,” said Al Jazeera’s Scott Heidler, reporting from Vientiane.
The UN tribunal ruling was a victory for the Philippines, which brought the case, and fellow ASEAN members Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia who also claim parts of the South China Sea.
But it infuriated Beijing which rejected the verdict and has ramped up both its rhetoric and military manoeuvres in the disputed waters in the last two weeks.
ASEAN diplomats have been working on a joint communique to be issued at the end of the five-day meeting but disagreements have festered on how to approach the tribunal ruling.
Those involved in talks told AFP that Cambodia, a staunch Beigin ally, has so far opposed any mention of it.
A working draft of the communique obtained by AFP on Saturday showed the section titled “South China Sea” as blank.
“Our house is in a mess right now,” one diplomat involved in the talks told reporters late Saturday as the day’s attempts to reach a consensus came to a close.
Washington has backed the Philippines and other South China Sea claimants against Beijing, arguing for free passage through what it considers international waters.
A State Department official said the US would push for ASEAN to ease tensions over the South China Sea and find common ground.
But the official added: “I’d put a little more value on the conversation that happens among the ministers themselves than I do in the often lengthy and torturous prose that is pulled together by the staff afterwards.”
It is not clear whether Kerry intends to meet his counterpart Wang for talks during their visit.
Chinese pressure was blamed last month for a startling show of discord by the bloc, 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.
The ongoing impasse in Vientiane has led to fears of a repeat of a 2012 summit in Cambodia where the bloc failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in its history because of disagreements over the South China Sea.
A failure by ASEAN to respond to the tribunal will do little to counter criticism that the bloc risks veering into obscurity as a talking shop with little real diplomatic clout.