Thursday, July 19, 2012

Asean War of Words Over South China Sea Continues

The recriminations and finger-pointing after last week’s busted Asean summit continue.

The highly-anticipated meeting of foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Phnom Penh was supposed to look for ways to resolve the long-running territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which is claimed in whole or part by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. Instead, the ministers bickered over terms of the discussion and failed to settle on a concluding joint communiqué at the end of the summit, which is normally a formality – the first time Asean’s leaders failed to do so in the bloc’s 45-year history.

Tempers have kept flaring since then, with some analysts viewing the disagreement over the resource-rich sea as one of the biggest challenges the bloc has ever faced. Philippines officials in particular have complained the regional bloc isn’t doing enough to stand up to China, which is asserting its claims in the sea. Cambodia, which is chairing this year’s Asean meetings, has resisted any steps that would embarrass China, which asked that Asean leaders keep the topic off the agenda last week.

In the latest salvo, the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs sent out a statement – “Why There Was No Asean Joint Communique” – on Wednesday, defending its actions at the summit and debunking various criticisms leveled at the Philippine delegation.

Signed by Undersecretary Erlinda F. Basilio, the document listed numerous criticisms of the Philippine delegation which it said were “fiction,” including reports that the Philippine Foreign Minister walked out of last week’s meetings in disgust and that the Philippines didn’t do enough to build consensus on issues related to the sea. Among other things, the Philippines wanted Asean to mention the disputed Scarborough Shoal – which was the site of a two-month standoff between China and the Philippines that ended last month – in its joint communiqué, but not all nations present agreed.

The Philippines side has been working to build support for its position, but “the Cambodian Chair consistently rejected any proposed text that mentions Scarborough Shoal,” the letter said. The Philippines did not accuse Cambodia of “doing Beijing’s bidding” by resisting references to the Shoal, the letter said, “but other quarters preferred not to remain silent” on the issue, it added, without specifying which countries.

“The Philippines has been approaching the issue with patience and tolerance” when it comes to the sea, it added.

Kao Kimhourn, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Cambodia, denied in an interview Wednesday that Cambodia tried to block the joint communiqué.

“We discussed more than 130 points and only one point related to South China Sea,” he said. “We tried to negotiate on this point (the South China Sea), but there was no consensus,” he said, adding that other countries supported Cambodia’s position.

Indeed, the big mystery now for Asean-watchers is: Which countries are taking Cambodia’s side, and which are lining up with the Philippines? Manila claims it is being supported by numerous other members, but many of the region’s governments have left their positions unclear. Diplomats from the Philippines and elsewhere – including the U.S. – have tried to lobby governments to support a tougher line against China, but what other regional powers such as Thailand say behind closed doors is hard to pin down.

A person familiar with the discussions last week said that mid-level officials from across Asean agreed to a joint statement that mentioned the South China Sea ahead of the meetings, but that Cambodia rejected it. The Philippines and at least one other nation then said they’d rather not have a statement if the issue was ignored, the person said.

It’s also unclear whether there will be a way out of the impasse, though some diplomats are trying to find one. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa set off on an emergency swing through Southeast Asia on Wednesday to try to patch up disagreements over the sea issue, including some form of code of conduct to govern future disputes, the Associated Press said.

It is “critically important” for the bloc to make progress on the issue soon, he said at a press conference. “If we do not do anything, we know the damage will become bigger,” he said.-Wall Street Journal (July 18, 2012 7:13PM)

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