Asean’s position on maritime disputes in the South China Sea fractured further yesterday as the Philippines identified Vietnam as the second country that had contested a claim by Cambodia that the regional bloc had reached consensus to not internationalize the issue.
Pham Binh Minh, the Vietnamese foreign minister, would not directly confirm Hanoi’s position, but he said the maritime dispute that pits four Asean countries—the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei—against China was already of international interest, as there are concerns over freedom of navigation and maintaining stability in the region.
“One is the territory dispute, the other dimension is that peace and stability in the region would be affected if anything happens in the South China Sea, and the third dimension is the sea lanes, maritime navigation,” Mr. Minh said.
“If you look at that, you can see it’s itself an international issue.”
Speaking to reporters on Sunday at the Asean Summit in Phnom Penh, Kao Kim Hourn, secretary of state at the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, claimed that regional leaders had agreed that the sea issue would only be addressed through the so-called Asean-China mechanism.
However, Philippine President Benigno Aquino quickly denied that claim the following day, saying there was no consensus on the issue as the Philippines, as well as one other Asean country, which he did not name, believed the sea dispute was an international issue.
“In order to gain a consensus, you’re talking about a 100 percent agreement. We take the position that we did not agree so there is no consensus,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario reiterated yesterday.
“And as a matter of fact, if you talk to Vietnam, they also did not agree,” Mr. Del Rosario said. “Vietnam is undertaking its own initiative to protest the understanding that there was a consensus,” he added.
At the close of the East Asia Summit yesterday—which was attended by the 10 Asean member states, as well as the heads of state of the U.S., Japan, China, India, New Zealand, South Korea and Australia—Mr. Del Rosario and Fu Ying, the Chinese vice foreign minister, held simultaneous press conferences meters away from each other in the main lobby of the Peace Palace.
Mr. Del Rosario repeated the Philippines’ position that it has an inherent right to use whatever channels or forums available to protect its national interests, and that not internationalizing South China Sea disputes was really an “expression of an idea” during Sunday’s meeting, not a consensus.
“I can’t explain what Cambodia has done or what it was thinking when it did what it did,” Mr. Del Rosario said of the claims of an Asean consensus.
“[T]he rules on consensus means everyone must be on board. Obviously, we are not on board, so there is no consensus.”
He also said that there was a “suggestion” from the Philippines that China should pull their ships from the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Both countries have engaged in a standoff over the territory since April when they began posting naval and coastguard ships near the shoal, though the Philippines has since pulled its ships out of the area.
Ms. Fu said in a press conference that China has a policy of “good neighborliness and friendliness,” and that the Scarborough Shoal, also known as Huangyuan Island in Chinese, is Chinese territory.
“Premier Wen [Jiabao] responded to when leaders of some countries made their remarks. Premier Wen Jiabao said that Huangyuan Island is China’s territory and there has been no disputes,” Ms. Fu said. “China’s act of defending its sovereignty is necessary and legitimate.”
“We are dedicated to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea. We have properly handled the incident that was not the making of China,” she said.
“We do not want to bring the disputes to an occasion like this and we do not want to give over-emphasis to the territorial disputes and the differences and we don’t think it is a good idea to spread a sense of tension in this region,” Ms. Fu added.
During the East Asia Summit, Mr. Aquino also stressed to fellow world leaders the importance of delimiting claims in the South China Sea.
“At no time in the contemporary history of the South China Sea has clarification and delimitation of maritime areas become more urgent and imperative than they are now,” he said at the summit, according to a statement released by the Philippine Foreign Ministry.