Sunday, July 15, 2012

No need to review ties with Cambodia

Manila, Philippines - Despite the lack of a joint statement at the conclusion of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers’ meeting, a government official maintained that there was no need to review diplomatic ties with Cambodia.

“That may be too drastic... There are things that can still be hammered out without going down that way,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said.

The foreign ministers had earlier agreed to key elements of a code of conduct in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) but for some reason, no joint statement was issued at the end the meeting.

“We share the disappointment of the other foreign ministers. I believe they have been (expressing it), we have seen several statements from different foreign ministers who attended the meeting in Cambodia. And correct me if I’m wrong, but I think in 45 years this is the first time that it happened that a communiqué has not been issued despite the fact that the ASEAN has dealt with contentious issues in the past,” Valte admitted.

During the ASEAN leaders’ summit in Cambodia in April, the West Philippine Sea issue was stricken off the ASEAN agenda by the chairman, sources said, although Manila insisted on it.

“ASEAN has been through many contentious issues and it has always come out with a communiqué. But we will respect their assessment in the same way that our country has its own assessment...along with other neighboring countries,” Valte said.

It was also in Cambodia where the Philippines called on ASEAN to come up with a united stand on the matter before talking to China, which had been espousing a bilateral solution to the problem.

“The issues we raised about territorial claims and rules-based mechanisms for dispute resolution are relevant from multilateral perspectives,” Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office secretary Ricky Carandang said.

Valte also belied reports that the Philippines was alone in its stand on the West Philippine Sea issue.
“I don’t think that’s accurate…. (just) scan all of the reports that have come out on the movements in the meetings in ASEAN,” Valte said.

As to the next steps to be taken by the Philippines, Valte said she would have to defer to Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario.

She said the issue would be discussed when Del Rosario comes back from Cambodia.

Valte added there was no indication that President Aquino would no longer attend the ASEAN summit in Cambodia in November.

Based on reports, days of heated talks ended in failure on Friday as deep splits over China prevented the ASEAN grouping from issuing its customary joint statement for the first time.

Foreign ministers from the 10-member bloc have been wrangling since Monday to hammer out a diplomatic communiqué, which has held up progress on a separate code of conduct aimed at soothing tensions in the flashpoint South China Sea.

China claims sovereignty over nearly all of the resource-rich sea, which is home to vital shipping lanes, but ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims in the area.

The long-stalled code of conduct, strongly supported by the United States, is seen as a way of reducing the chances of a spat over fishing, shipping rights or oil and gas exploration tipping into armed conflict.

China described the meeting as “productive” while the Philippines lambasted the failure to issue a statement.

The Philippines and the US called this week for a unified ASEAN that could use its collective clout to negotiate with China, while Beijing had always wanted to deal with its smaller neighbors individually.

“China realizes that it will be much more difficult to deal with the issue against ASEAN,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. “The tactic is to divide and rule.”

On Friday, Chinese state media reported that a 30-vessel fishing fleet had been sent to the sensitive Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines have all recently complained about perceived Chinese aggression in the sea over separate disputed seas.

Diplomatic sources, speaking anonymously to AFP, referred to angry exchanges at the ASEAN forum this week, with an emergency meeting called for early Friday morning also failing to break the deadlock on the joint statement.

“I think it would be fair to say that tempers in some of the private meetings have run hot. There have been some very tense back and forth,” one US official said on Thursday.

China is a key bank-roller of the host Cambodia and some diplomats said Beijing had twisted arms in Phnom Penh to prevent any reference to the South China Sea disputes in the communiqué.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong expressed regret at the discord within ASEAN, but said he could “not accept that the joint communiqué has become the hostage of the bilateral issue (between the Philippines and China).”

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who played a key role trying to broker a compromise, expressed “deep, profound disappointment” at the lack of consensus within the bloc.

“There is still a common view that we must, if anything, reinforce our efforts to work on the COC (code of conduct), to begin our talks with the Chinese on the COC,” he added.

Foreign ministers said on Sunday that they had agreed on “key elements” of a draft code to be presented to China, but these were not released to the media.

China was also cool to the idea of starting negotiations, almost 10 years since the idea of creating a code was first agreed, saying it would only negotiate “when conditions are ripe.”

Last Friday, del Rosario reported in a press briefing what he discussed in the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum in Cambodia.

He explained the Philippine position in terms of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, challenges and the events that have occurred in the area.

“We were in a de-escalation mode and we wanted to keep a lower profile in the hope that we could negotiate quietly a solution to the impasse that we had encountered there for quite a long time,” he said.

At the three regional meetings, del Rosario brought up the matter of Panatag Shoal and indicated that it has a direct bearing on the future direction of the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum.

“And mostly there was a considerable amount of discussion on Panatag Shoal in all of the forums that were held there and I think we were successful in being able to bring to the fore the challenges that the Philippines faces in that area,” del Rosario added.

During the special meeting on the draft joint communiqué, several ASEAN member-states and the ASEAN Secretariat supported the Philippine position that the fact that the Scarborough Shoal issue was discussed in the Ministerial Meeting should be reflected in the joint communiqué.

However, del Rosario said the chair, Cambodia, had “consistently opposed any mention of the Scarborough Shoal at all in the joint communiqué and today announced that a joint communiqué ‘cannot be issued’.”

Del Rosario had discussed the situation in Panatag Shoal, also called Bajo de Masinloc, in several ASEAN Ministerial Meetings in Phnom Penh starting last July 9, and the Philippines simply wanted the fact that the issue discussed should be reflected in the joint communiqué.

“The issue discussed, which was Scarborough Shoal, should be reflected in the joint communiqué, no more, no less. Just a recognition that the Scarborough Shoal was in fact discussed and shown some concern,” he said.

China-friendly Cambodia took the position that it does not want to mention bilateral issues of the Scarborough Shoal and the dispute between Vietnam and China.

When asked if Cambodia could have been pressured by China, Del Rosario said such question should be directly asked and answered by Cambodia, but he noted that “at one point he (chairman) indicated that he had ‘political reason’.”
The Philippines further maintained that since the competing claims in the West Philippine Sea involve four ASEAN member-states – namely the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei – this dispute is not a mere bilateral conflict with a northern neighbor but a multilateral one and should therefore be resolved in a multilateral manner.

“It also is not true that ASEAN does not discuss or does not include bilateral matters in their joint communiqué and the most recent example of this is the problem between Cambodia and Thailand that was brought up in every meeting as a matter of discussion with no reservation,” he said.-The Philippine Star (July 15, 2012)

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