Asean Leaders Join Cambodia in Softening Tone Toward China

Southeast Asian countries on Sunday adopted a more conciliatory stance toward China’s actions in the South China Sea than in previous years, a sign of China’s growing influence in the region amid what Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry described as unclear foreign policy from the U.S.

An Asean statement, released on Sunday following an annual summit of the bloc’s leaders and foreign ministers in Manila, omitted any references to China’s “militarization” of the waterway—wording that Cambodia is said to have unsuccessfully lobbied to remove from last year’s statement.

Asean leaders link arms during the opening ceremony of the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila on Saturday. From left: Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Burma State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei Darussalam, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith. (Reuters)

Cambodia’s efforts at the time angered some of the bloc’s other states, who are rival claimants in the sea, and was criticized by some Asean diplomats. Cambodia had been promised more than $500 million in aid from China shortly before the meeting.

Sunday’s statement noted “the improving cooperation between Asean and China” in the South China Sea, with the leaders also recognizing “the long term benefits” of peace, stability and sustainable development in the region.

An aversion to directly criticizing China has become mainstream Asean policy as some of the bloc’s member states seek to improve ties with the country. Asean chairman and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has pursued closer links with China in recent months as he moves away from his country’s historical ally, the U.S.

China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea have angered competing claimants, including four Asean members—Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

In a post to his Facebook page on Sunday, Prime Minister Hun Sen said maintaining peace and security in the region was Asean’s most important role, and also highlighted its policy of noninterference in member-states’ internal affairs.

A statement on Sunday from Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry expressed hope that negotiations with China for a maritime “code of conduct” in the South China Sea, which have been ongoing for 15 years, would yield positive results.

The statement also noted that Asean nations “do not have a clear reading of the U.S.’s foreign policy” toward the region, and that the world was “undergoing an important period of shifting power relations.”

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