Prime Minister Defends Sea Stance After Summit Breakdown

Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday defended his strict hands-off policy toward territorial disputes in the South China Sea following news reports that his government scuttled yet another proposed joint statement from Asean on the issue.

Following a meeting of Asean foreign ministers and their Chinese counterpart in China’s Yunan province last week, news reports emerged citing anonymous diplomats who claimed that Cambodia, Burma and Laos forced the recall of a joint statement by withdrawing their support for it.

According to the reports, the statement expressed “serious concerns over recent and ongoing developments” in the sea, where China is turning shallow reefs into artificial islands with landing strips in waters contested by the Philippines and others.

Mr. Hun Sen said he felt obliged to mention that a foreign ambassador posted in the country, whom he did not name, had tried to lobby him on the Philippines’ behalf.

The Philippines has filed a complaint against China’s island-making in the South China Sea with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague; Beijing has said that it will not recognize any ruling made by the court.

“More than a month ago, the ambassador of a country not in the Asean framework came to my residence asking for support for the court’s verdict,” the prime minister told an audience of graduates on Monday at a ceremony in Phnom Penh.

“The court has not yet issued a verdict, but they are lobbying us to support the court’s decision when the court issues a verdict.”

Mr. Hun Sen said he turned the ambassador down and insisted that the case was none of Asean’s business.

“I declare that Cambodia’s position is to not join a joint statement supporting the court’s verdict,” he said. “It’s a dispute between the Philippines and China because the Philippines sued China, so let the Philippines and China solve the issue among themselves. Why is it necessary to get Asean’s support?”

The prime minister also rebuked those who have accused Cambodia of jeopardizing the unity of Asean with its position on the South China Sea, and in turn blamed the Philippines for trying to drag Cambodia into the dispute.

“They have a dispute over territory, but they get Cambodia to be responsible,” he said.

“I will not allow anyone to pit me and Cambodia against another country, because we remain neutral on this issue.”

Mr. Hun Sen did not directly address international media reports that Cambodia helped recall the joint statement in China last week. The reports noted Cambodia’s key role in ending a foreign ministers meeting without a joint statement for the first time in 45 years when it was chair of the regional bloc in 2012 by refusing to allow any mention of ongoing disputes in the South China Sea.

The debacle cemented perceptions of Cambodia as a client state of China—the country’s largest investor—ready to act on Beijing’s behalf to split Asean and delay an agreement on a proposed Code of Conduct regulating navigation in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping corridors.

At Monday’s graduation ceremony, Mr. Hun Sen dismissed the idea, arguing that Asean’s failure to finalize a Code of Conduct under subsequent chairs proved that Cambodia was not China’s tool.

He said Cambodia could not issue a joint statement in 2012 because two member countries were insisting at the time that it declare disputed island groups in the South China Sea as their property, referring to the Philippines and Vietnam.

“But Cambodia is not a judge to make decisions,” the prime minister said.

During the 2012 summit in Phnom Penh, the Philippines said it merely wanted the joint statement to acknowledge that a recent standoff between Chinese and Philippine ships had been discussed in meetings, and lambasted Cambodia for refusing to do so.

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