THE dispute over some resource-rich islands in the South China Sea is assuming menacing proportions, with the just concluded Asean summit failing to issue a joint communiqué that could signal a united stand on the issue. Four Asean members — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — resist China’s claims to the islands, known as Scarborough Shoal, but do not find support among other Asean members. Apparently the eight other members resisted the demand by the Philippines and Vietnam that the joint communiqué contain a reference to the dispute with China. This split on the Shoal is in direct contrast to the unanimity Asean members showed a few days earlier by adopting a common code of conduct on shipping and other maritime issues. Since its foundation by five countries in 1967, Asean membership has grown to 10 because of the success of the common economic policies the members have followed. Yet the Shoal issue has prevented the grouping for the first time in its 45-year history from issuing a joint communiqué.
Behind the regional dispute lurks the presence of America and China in the Asia-Pacific region. Even though the two countries continue to remain committed to a policy of friendship, serious misgivings exist on both sides, with Beijing accusing Congress of erecting barriers to Chinese imports and American congressional leaders seeing a threat to US interests in China’s growing military muscle. However, meeting on the sidelines of the Asean summit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jeichi talked friendship and promised to work together. Publicly, America has pledged not to take sides in the Shoal dispute, but China has often seen American policies as subtle moves designed to check Beijing’s influence in the region. How things go in the Asia-Pacific region will basically by decided by these two powers.