Manila, Phnom Penh Dispute South China Sea Talks

Diplomatic tensions over contested territory in the South China Sea mounted again yesterday with Philippine President Benigno Aquino contesting comments made by Cambodia on Sunday that Asean states had unanimously agreed not to “internationalize” the dispute with China.

Speaking to reporters on Sunday at the Asean Summit in Phnom Penh, Kao Kim Hourn, secretary of state for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that regional leaders had agreed that the sea issue would only be addressed through the so-called Asean-China mechanism.

But during the Asean-Japan Summit yesterday, Mr. Aquino said that the Philippines had not agreed, as claimed, to avoid internationalizing the contentious issue of the South China Sea.

“At the Asean Retreat yesterday [Sunday], various views were expressed on Asean unity which were translated by the Chair into an Asean consensus. This was not the understanding of both the Philippines and at least one other country,” the Philippines said in a statement yesterday.

“When the Chair in the Asean-Japan meeting…alluded to this, President Benigno Aquino III indicated that the Philippines was not in accord that while the Philippines was for Asean unity, it has the inherent right to defend its national interest when deemed necessary,” the statement continued.

“Foreign Secretary Albert F. Del Rosario had also confirmed the Philippine position in a formal letter to the Chair with copies furnished to all Asean Foreign Ministers,” the statement added.

In an interview, Mr. Del Rosario yesterday flatly denied Mr. Kim Hourn’s comments on Asean’s apparent consensus not to internationalize the dispute.

“No, no, we did not agree to that. I think there was a misunderstanding,” Mr. Del Rosario said before the start of the Asean-South Korean Summit. “I think there were views expressed on Asean unity and it was translated into a consensus that was not our understanding.”

“We cleared that today [with Cambodia],” he added.

Despite Mr. Aquino reiterating the Philippines’ position during the Asean-Japan Summit, Mr. Kim Hourn yesterday continued to stand by his original comments regarding a consensus.

“Yes, during the retreat of the Asean leaders, and at the suggestion of the Malaysian Prime Minister [Najib Razak] the leaders agreed not to internationalize the South China Sea issue, and of course to address the issues through the existing China-Asean mechanism,” Mr. Kim Hourn maintained.

However, Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan confirmed that the Philippines had disagreed on this issue during Sunday’s meetings.

“The Philippines has reserved the right to use other forums…and channels, they said, to defend their rights and their national interests,” Mr. Pitsuwan said in an interview on the sidelines of yesterday’s meetings.

“[T]he issue is rather contentious so, there are different interpretations, but we are working in the same direction trying to resolve the problem.”

The new verbal spat between Phnom Penh and Manila follows a major breakdown in talks at the last Asean Summit in Phnom Penh in July where Cambodia, in its role as chair, did everything possible to keep the territorial dispute off the agenda. The decision meant that the 10-member bloc failed to release a final joint communiqué for the first time in its 45-year history.

The maritime dispute over the resource-rich body of water pits four Asean countries—the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei—against China. As recently as April, navy and coast guard ships from China and the Philippines engaged in a standoff in the waters.

While the Asean claimant states prefer multilateral negotiation on the issue—and hope for U.S. involvement—Beijing has consistently called for bilateral discussions, which would give China more leverage in negotiations with individual Asean states.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who has taken on the role of de facto mediator in the dispute, said yesterday that he had written a letter to Philippine officials about the disagreement, as he believes both viewpoints do not cancel each other out.

“The two objectives are not actually mutually exclusive, and I have written formally to our Philippine colleague to affirm that actually their view is actually in sync with what has been said all this time—that there is actually a mutually reinforcing objective of Asean unity and addressing this issue in a matter they see fit,” Mr. Natalegawa said in an interview on the sidelines to yesterday’s meetings.

“I don’t think we should be too preoccupied with the labels ‘it’s internationalized’ or not,” he added.

“From the very beginning, this issue is one that is receiving attention both at the bilateral level between the affected countries and, at the same time, at the regional context.”

Since Cambodia assumed the chairmanship of Asean, there has been a distinct lack of unity within the regional bloc over how to handle the issue of the South China Sea.

During the Asean Summit in April, Cambodia pushed for China’s involvement in Asean discussions on major points in the drafting of a legally binding Code of Conduct (COC) in the sea. However, the Philippines disagreed with China’s inclusion, stating that key elements in the COC should be decided within Asean before including China.

Analysts said this week’s Asean Summit is merely a repeat of the traditional allegiances that have come to light throughout the year.

On Sunday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao pledged more than $50 million in aid to Cambodia during a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen.

“This does appear to be another example of Cambodia trying to pursue its single-minded policy of not giving any offense to China,” said Carlyle Thayer, a professor at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy who is an expert on the region.

“Cambodia’s actions only serve to undermine the Asean Chair as an office,” he added.

(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)

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