Cambodia helped to scupper an Asean joint statement on the South China Sea last week, according to news reports, an echo of the success it had killing a similar statement when it was chair of the regional bloc four years ago.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry issued its own statement after the two-day meeting in Kunming, China, supporting Beijing’s preference for settling territorial disputes in the hotly contested sea bilaterally.
According to the Associated Press (AP), the bloc issued a joint statement at the end of the meeting on Tuesday between the Asean foreign ministers and their Chinese counterpart expressing “serious concern over recent and ongoing developments.”
China claims most of the sea, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, and has been transforming shallow reefs into artificial islands topped with airstrips, in waters also claimed by Asean members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
But the statement was quickly recalled in order to make “amendments” to an updated version that never came, the AP reported. It cited an unnamed Philippine diplomat saying that Burma, Cambodia and Laos withdrew their support for the statement so as not to offend China.
Kyodo News also cited unnamed diplomats who claimed that Cambodia and Laos opposed issuing a joint statement.
Neither Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn nor ministry spokesman Chum Sounry could be reached on Sunday. Government spokesman Phay Siphan said he did not know if Cambodia was involved in recalling the statement.
Cambodia’s reported retraction reflected the spoiler role it played as the chair of Asean in 2012.
During a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers in Phnom Penh that year, Cambodia blocked efforts by the Philippines and others to mention recent naval confrontations with China in the sea. As a result, the foreign ministers’ meeting ended without a closing statement for the first time in the block’s 45-year history.
The debacle cemented perceptions of Cambodia as a wedge with which China, Cambodia’s largest investor, could split Asean unity over the South China Sea. While Beijing sees an advantage in settling territorial disputes one-on-one, the countries with competing claims see a strength in numbers and want China to deal with them as a group.
On Friday, the Foreign Affairs Ministry issued its own statement on the meeting in Kunming making no reference to the “serious concerns” mentioned in the joint Asean statement that was recalled.
The ministry said Mr. Sokhonn had stressed the need to settle disputes bilaterally.
The minister, it said, “recalled the stance of Cambodia, which is that territorial and jurisdictional disputes have to be solved between the parties directly involved, without threats or the use of force, in accordance with the principles of globally recognized international law and the United Nations pact on maritime law.”