Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry on Wednesday denied that Cambodia had blocked a reference to a U.N.-backed tribunal’s ruling against Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea in Monday’s joint Asean statement—and said the omission was, in fact, the Philippines’ decision.
Mr. Sounry’s remark directly contradicted a statement on Wednesday by the Philippines’ foreign minister, Perfecto Yasay, who said his country “vigorously pushed” for inclusion of the ruling it won against Beijing, but backed down in the interest of regional unity.
Returning from an Asean foreign ministers meeting in Vientiane, Mr. Sounry told reporters that accusations that Cambodia “vetoed” the ruling’s inclusion at the request of China—which promised the government more than half a billion dollars in aid this month—were false.
“The Philippines’ foreign minister himself recognized that this issue is between the Philippines and China, and is not an issue between Asean and China. And the Philippines’ foreign minister himself decided to remove the issue of the verdict of the Permanent Arbitration Court in the joint statement,” the spokesman said.
“So I want to verify that it was not Cambodia who vetoed,” he added. “The person who decided was the minister of foreign affairs of the Philippines.”
However, during a news conference in Manila on Wednesday ahead of a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Mr. Yasay of the Philippines said he had wanted the ruling mentioned but backed down in the interest of unity, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported.
“We vigorously pushed for the inclusion…in the mentioning of the arbitral award. This was a diplomatic tack that had to be made,” Mr. Yasay said, according to the newspaper.
In a separate news conference after the meeting with Mr. Yasay, Mr. Kerry also said he was pleased that the regional bloc had, in the end, issued a joint statement, according to a Reuters report.
“It makes Asean more credible to the international community and makes it more effective and relevant as a regional group,” he said, adding that omission of the ruling in the statement did not diminish the verdict.
“It is impossible for it to be irrelevant, it is legally binding,” he said.
The July 12 verdict handed down by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) rejected Beijing’s extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea—through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes annually—and the majority of Asean’s member states had been pushing to mention the decision in Monday’s statement, according to reports.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all have overlapping claims with Beijing in the South China Sea, while Indonesia claims some fishing rights. At Monday’s session, Asean’s foreign ministers met with Mr. Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
The international court case to determine the validity of China’s claims to most of the South China Sea had been brought to the court by Manila and has greatly angered Beijing, whose news agency described it as a “blow to peace and stability in the region.”
On Tuesday, after the Asean statement was issued with no reference to the ruling, Mr. Wang singled out Cambodia for “taking charge of impartiality and safeguarding fairness.” A diplomat, who wasn’t identified, had described Cambodia as “unbelievable” for opposing the ruling’s inclusion during the week spent drafting the statement, according to Reuters.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said it was strange that Cambodia was now trying to attribute omission of the ruling to Manila.
“To claim that the Philippines took out reference to the PCA’s decision would be inconsistent with the Philippine position and various statements,” he said.
Another observer said on Sunday that Cambodia was “antagonizing” its neighbors in Southeast Asia by serving as China’s agent within Asean in exchange for money, and may find it hard to recover.
Yet Mr. Sounry, the foreign ministry spokesman, on Wednesday also denied that the half billion dollars of aid promised to Cambodia by China on July 15—three days after the court’s ruling—had swayed Cambodia’s choice.
“It’s two different issues,” he said.