On Asean’s South China Sea Question, Little Consensus Reached

After days of discussion only one consensus emerged from the Asean Summit regarding the South China Sea: there would likely be no decision anytime soon. While the Philippines pushed for an agreement among Asean member states to leave China out of discussions on a legally-binding Code of Conduct (COC) in the sea, it appears that none was reached.

“We do not have a common point related to this COC for discussion with China yet,” Prime Minister Hun Sen said during a news conference held at the close of the two-day summit yesterday. Mr. Hun Sen was referring to the long-awaited document that would govern how disputes in the contentious South China Sea are settled.

In a statement by Mr. Hun Sen to close yesterday’s summit, he stressed that progress was continuing on the Code of Conduct document.

“We reaffirmed the importance of the Declaration [of] Conduct… and to move for the eventual realization of a regional Code of Conduct. We stressed the need to intensify efforts to ensure the effective and full implementation of the DOC,” Mr. Hun Sen said.

But the prime minister also appeared to reaffirm the Cambodian stance, which has been to push for Chinese involvement early on in discussions over the COC.

“We cannot agree with Asean without agreement from the other side,” he said during a question-and-answer period.

But talks with Asean foreign ministers on the sidelines of yesterday’s meetings revealed a less united stance on Chinese inclusion in an Asean issue.

Philippine Foreign Minister Albert Del Rosario was adamant that Asean must work toward drafting its own standpoint on the South China Sea before engaging with China.

“Our position remains that it must be resolved peacefully in accordance with a rules based regime,” Mr. del Rosario said on the sidelines of the meeting.

“The new element that we have introduced is the drafting for the COC and the inclusion of the major elements should actually be made by Asean internally before China is invited,” he said.

Throughout the course of the two-day summit and during a meeting of foreign ministers held in the run-up, the Philippines has pushed heavily for an Asean consensus prior to Chinese engagement.

As the primary Asean claimant within the highly-disputed sea, the Philippines stands to lose the most heavily should territorial clashes occur.

In yesterday’s meetings, President Benigno Aquino called on his Asean counterparts to keep China out of the drafting process, according to the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs.

“Asean Member States should arrive at a common and collective position on the COC before meeting with China to craft a legally-binding code in the West Philippine Sea,” Mr. Aquino said. The nation would, however, be willing to meet with China and claimant states “under the guidance of Asean in the hope that this will constitute an important step in the peaceful and diplomatic resolution of the disputes in the West Philippine Sea…. Both proposals are complementary.”

After two days of such statements, the Philippines appears to have won some converts to its position. In his first comments on the matter, Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said he believed “we have to come up with a conclusion with Asean first before we can talk to China.”

Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, meanwhile, avoided questions on the topic, but when pressed on whether Asean would reach a common position before entering China into the conversation, he said: “I think they need to.”

Observers have called the apparent discord on the issue unsurprising.

“I think it shows that ASEAN has been unable to produce a unified position regarding the South China Sea issue, this is because each member of ASEAN has its own national interests to consider and all are not prepared to protect the interests of the region. But this is understandable,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an Asean expert currently based at Kyodo University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.

“I think at the end, what Cambodia can do is to ensure that there is a status quo in the issue and that it will maintain solid relations with both China and ASEAN at the same time,” he said.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis, Simon Marks, Phorn Bopha, Abby Seiff)

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