China scored a diplomatic victory on Monday as Southeast Asian nations dropped a U.S.-backed proposal to mention a landmark international court ruling against Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea in a joint statement.
A weekend deadlock between Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers was broken only when the Philippines withdrew its request to mention the ruling in the face of resolute objections from Cambodia, China’s closest ASEAN ally.
China publicly thanked Phnom Penh for the support, which threw the regional bloc’s meeting in the Laos capital of Vientiane into disarray.
Cambodia has long been an important ally for China in ASEAN, but it’s an increasingly important one as other countries look to use the international forum to air their concerns about the South China Sea. The Philippines and Vietnam have been pushing hard for a ruling, and countries like Malaysia which had previously hesitated to upset Beijing are falling into line as well. But not Cambodia.
Ultimately, the ruling isn’t so surprising. ASEAN is a relatively ineffective forum. Its inability to come to even a basic agreement about something as important (and, in Southeast Asia anyway, theoretically uncontroversial) as freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is a reminder that waiting for international bodies to maintain world order is a fool’s game. ASEAN, like the UN and the African Union, plays some important roles but it isn’t going to preserve stability in uncertain times.
International court rulings, it turns out, don’t enforce themselves.