After a year of intense diplomatic brinkmanship over the management of maritime disputes in the South China Sea, Cambodia passed the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to the tiny kingdom of Brunei on Jan. 1.
Recent years have witnessed a dramatic escalation in territorial disputes between China, on one hand, and a number of Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam on the other. However, the past year in particular marked a major deterioration in regional relations, due in no small part to the failure of ASEAN, under Cambodia’s watch, to adopt a coherent and effective diplomatic solution, be it in the form of a legally binding regional maritime code of conduct or simply a credible modus vivendi among disputing states.
As a result, many are beginning to wonder whether Brunei, known for its low-key diplomatic style, can muster enough political will to, first, steer a unified regional approach and, second, build on diplomatic advances made during the ASEAN chairmanships of Vietnam in 2010 and Indonesia in 2011, which set the contours of a code of conduct and censured China, a nonmember, over its aggressive maneuvering. Overall, there are still reasons to expect a relatively more constructive and decisive ASEAN leadership this year.