A Year On, Cambodia’s Role as Asean Chairman a Bitter Memory

Resentment is still simmering toward Cambodia for its handling of the contentions South China Sea issue last year, which fractured the unity of Asean, analysts from around the region said Thursday.

During the first day of a two-day regional conference in Phnom Penh organized by the Cambodian Institute for Co­operation and Peace, experts from countries around the region spoke about the challenges facing Asean in its dealings with China on a maritime dispute in the South China Sea.

The dispute over the resource-rich body of water pits four Asean countries—the Philippines, Viet­nam, Malaysia and Brunei—against China. While the Asean claimant states prefer multilateral negotiation on the issue and hope for U.S. involvement, Beijing has consistently called for bilateral discussions between each country concerned.

Tensions escalated last year during Cambodia’s chairmanship of Asean when officials did everything possible to keep the territorial dispute off the agenda, which for the first time in Asean’s history, led to a failure to release a final joint communique.

Carolina Hernandez, chief ex­ecutive officer of the Philip­pines’ Institute for Strategic and De­velopment Studies, said on the sidelines of the conference on Thursday that the issue of the South China Sea can either unite the regional body or be a source of friction.

“[The Cambodian] government was accountable for the non-adoption of a joint communique at the end of the 2012 [Asean Defense Ministers Meeting] for the first time in the 45-year history of this body,” Ms. Hernandez said. “It is an issue that can be a litmus test for Asean’s centrality.”

“It seems like governments are not really thinking about their region; they are thinking of their own countries only,” she said, conceding that her country is guilty of this as well.

Bounpan Kongnhinsayaseng, deputy director-general of Laos’ Institute of Foreign Affairs—a department within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—was more tactful in his criticism during a speech.

“Asean rarely has a common position on the South China Sea because some have direct interests and others do not, and this creates problems in consolidating Asean’s solidarity,” he said.

Asean Secretary-General Le Luong Minh—who hails from claimant state Vietnam and was previously its deputy minister of foreign affairs—at first said resolving the “sovereignty claims should be between the parties concerned.”

However, speaking later on the sidelines of the conference, Mr. Luong Minh sympathized with the need to involve other countries, whose interests lie in freedom of navigation of the sea lanes.

“It is also an issue of maritime security, an issue of safety of navigation and by nature, it is an issue of concern between the countries and parties even beyond the region,” he said.

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