PHNOM PENH — The disputed South China Sea is once again prompting internal divisions in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), with host Cambodia and the Philippines offering differing accounts of the bloc’s discussions of the issue in recent days.
Asean chair and host of the ongoing East Asia Summit Cambodia said that Asean countries had agreed not to “internationalize” the issue, prompting the Philippines to contend that no such consensus had been reached.
China claims most of the South China Sea as part of its territorial waters, putting it at odds with Vietnam and the Philippines, both of whom have claims on parts of the sea and to some islands in the contested waters.
On Sunday, Kao Kim Hourn, a Cambodian government spokesperson, told media that Southeast Asian leaders “had decided that they will not internationalize the South China Sea from now on.”
On Monday, however, Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told Filipino media that “this was not the understanding of both the Philippines and at least one other country.” It is thought that del Rosario was referring to Vietnam, which is also at odds with China over the South China Sea.
“It was translated into a consensus without our consent,” Rosario added, after Philippine President Benigno Aquino reportedly interjected when Cambodian Hun Sen announced that the bloc would keep discussions of the South China Sea limited to meetings with China.
The Philippines is a treaty ally of the United States, whose newly re-elected President Barack Obama met with Asean leaders on Monday evening in Phnom Penh.
The Cambodian summary of the discussions reflects the position of China, which has staked a claim to most of the South China Sea and has clashed with Vietnam and the Philippines in disputed waters over the past 18 months.
“We oppose the internationalization of the South China Sea,” Chinese government spokesperson Qin Gang told reporters.
The “internationalization” wording is thought to be code for keeping other big powers, such as the United States and Japan, out of discussions on conflicting claims over the maritime territory.
Japan, however, raised the South China Sea issue during a meeting with Asean on Monday morning, and in turn the US-Asean statement on Monday evening showed that the issue was discussed after President Obama arrived in Cambodia.
Cambodian spokesperson Kao Kim Hourn later conceded to reporters that “countries are free to raise whatever issues they please.”
Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, who will step down from his post on Tuesday, sought to downplay the South China Sea dispute, reminding media that the summit took in a range of political and economic issues.
“We’re not going to allow the issue to cloud or to affect other pursuits that we’re doing together here,” Surin told reporters.
Surin said earlier, however, that the bloc’s leaders had called on China to forge a “code of conduct” for the sea in collaboration with Asean—a move that China has stalled on so far.
Earlier in 2012, Asean countries failed to agree a summit communique for the first time ever, as Cambodia blocked statements on the South China Sea issue—move likely done on behalf of China.
Reiterating China’s view that Beijing should deal with the issue on a bilateral basis with each rival claimant, spokesperson Qin Gang told media on Monday that “Asean should not as a regional organization should not be getting itself involved in the territorial disputes between a state and a state.”
China has given over US $2 billion in bilateral aid and loans to Cambodia in recent years, building vital roads and other infrastructure while a Western-driven aid effort flounders amid alleged mismanagement and government corruption. Chinese companies have invested $8billion in Cambodia since 2006, making the country by far the biggest investor in the nation of 15 million.