Analysis: There will be plenty of smiling for the cameras at the Asean and East Asia meetings, but no one will be willing to make any real compromises on South China Sea territorial disputes
Bangkok: Asean and China will be looking to play down fears of open conflict over South China Sea territorial disputes at tomorrow's Asean summit and the following East Asia summit.
In reality, the bottom line remains unchanged, despite recent dialogue.
There is no guarantee the disputes will not once again threaten Asean unity, this time with Southeast Asian heads of state suffering the same fate as their foreign ministers did four months ago.
Asean foreign ministers in July did not issue their customary chairman's statement during their annual meeting after they failed to reach a consensus on the South China Sea issue. It was the first time the regional conference ended without a joint statement in the bloc's 45-year history.
Following that failure, considerable effort has been made to try to move forward with the creation of an Asean-China code of conduct on the South China Sea disputes.
"There is a sense of urgency because all sides see that it is not good for anyone to be stuck in the current position," Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said.
"China itself sees the importance, and since July has sent emissaries to visit many Asean capitals to forge mutual understanding. They too want to see the South China Sea code of conduct move ahead.
"Coming together [at the Phnom Penh summits] will give a sense of confidence to the world that we have a problem but we are managing it. It is not going to boil over and erupt into open conflict. That's the purpose of these discussions, this engagement."
The most recent effort at easing tensions took place at an informal meeting in Pattaya last month, where Asean and China representatives said they would continue efforts to settle territorial conflicts in the South China Sea through peaceful dialogue.
"All parties have reached an important agreement and have a major interest in upholding peace and stability in the South China Sea," Sihasak Phuangketkeow, Thailand's permanent secretary for foreign affairs, said.
But diplomatic sources say the gap between Asean and China on the South China Sea's code of conduct remains considerable.
The four Asean countries which lay claim to parts of the sea - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - say that territory is still undefined and that the code of conduct is necessary in order to achieve an effective resolution to the disputes.
Asean wants the code of conduct to cover the rules of behaviour and rules of engagement in South China Sea disputes. "But the Chinese are coming from the opposite position," one Asean diplomat said, adding that the Chinese are effectively saying there is no dispute over territory.
The current Chinese position is different to the one they adopted back in 2002, when Asean and Chinese foreign ministers issued their Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea.
In that declaration, Asean and China reaffirmed their commitment to the purposes and principles of the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But they have yet to agree on a code of conduct for the South China Sea.
Today, China does not want the issue to be raised in multilateral discussions. And if it has to be discussed, it does not want it to be officially recorded. It appears that China is trying to distance itself from the UNCLOS.
This was the main problem at the Asean foreign ministers' meeting in July when they failed to issue a joint communique.
According to Termsak Chalermpalanupap, former director of the political-security directorate of the Asean Secretariat, this was caused chiefly by serious disagreements between Cambodia and the Philippines, and between Cambodia and Vietnam, on how to present their concerns. The Philippines is concerned over alleged Chinese encroachment in the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by both China and the Philippines, while Vietnam alleges that China is violating its 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
Cambodia, as the current Asean chair, maintained that no "bilateral issues" should be mentioned in the joint communique. When there was no agreement on how to mention the recent "incidents" in the South China Sea, consensus on what to include in the joint communique became impossible, said Mr Termsak, who is currently a visiting research fellow at the Asean Studies Centre of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
"Unfortunately Cambodia hardly tried, as an Asean chairman is always expected to do, to offer any compromise to accommodate the concerns of the Philippines and Vietnam," he said.
"Instead, more efforts to reach a compromise were undertaken mostly by Indonesia, whose Foreign Minister, Dr Marty Natalegawa, tried to present a redraft of the problematic paragraph on the specific incidents in the South China Sea under question, but to no avail."
In the face of lingering disagreements, Mr Termsak said Cambodia put forth three stark choices: Include reference to the South China Sea where there is agreement while leaving out any references where there was no consensus; make no reference at all to the South China Sea; or issue no communique at all. The third option was what eventually happened.
Cambodia has repeatedly denied that it used its prerogative as the Asean chair to effectively block the inclusion of the South China Sea in the foreign ministers' joint communique.
You Ay, the Cambodian ambassador to Thailand, said there were four paragraphs on the South China Sea, but only one where a consensus could not be reached.
"Cambodia's position is that we must have consensus for the text on the one hand, and to ensure that what we do does not further contribute to the rising tensions in the South China Sea on the other," she said.
An Asean diplomat said that Vietnam's desire to mention a disputed continental shelf and its exclusive economic zone - both elements of the UNCLOS - in an Asean statement could lend weight to Vietnam and the Philippines' claims.
China appears to be distancing itself from the UNCLOS, and is now only prepared to talk through diplomatic channels, without mentioning the UN convention.
"The China of 2002 and the China of today are two very different Chinas," the diplomat said.
" In 2002 they did not have the will to assert themselves. Now they are talking about the code of conduct in our territory.
"And even though China is a powerful and growing superpower, it is still in the middle of the process of state building, and a country which is still in the process of state building will be unyielding with regards to territory.
"That is why the issue of territory is extremely sensitive. Sovereignty is of the utmost importance and you cannot expect them to yield because that is the litmus test of legitimacy of a government."
None of the senior Asean officials are certain that a repeat of July's deadlock will not occur over the next few days at the Asean and East Asia summits.
"If I were the Chinese and the South China Sea had to be discussed at the Asean summit, I would not press the hosts to reject mentioning a few paragraphs in the communique," the Asean diplomat said.
"The Philippines and the Vietnamese are not going to back down. They cannot. They have their constituents and their party as well. If they insisted on a certain position in July, how can Vietnam and Philippines change their position?
"If I were China I would not block it, because it would just be a replay, it would just be too obvious. It would be domineering and this is counterproductive to what China wants in the region."--Courtesy of Bangkok Post