The planned theme of yesterday’s ASEAN defence ministers roundtable was military co-operation between countries, particularly in times of natural disaster, but it was a theme invariably pushed to the background by other regional developments.
Among them was what appeared to be a cooling-off period in the dispute between the Philippines and China over sovereignty in the South China Sea, as well as this week’s visit by China’s minister of defence, the timing of which raised some eyebrows.
ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, along with China and Taiwan, claim portions of the resource-rich body of water.
Last month, China and the Philippines each sent boats to a disputed reef that both countries claim.
But that standoff seems to have turned into a waiting game, based on remarks by the minister of defence for the Philippines, Voltaire Gazmin.
He said that as of yesterday afternoon, only two vessels remained around the reef, which the Philippines calls the Scarborough Shoal.
Gazmin also told reporters he met with his Chinese counterpart, Lian Guanglie, on Monday at Guanglie’s hotel.
“It was agreed that we exercise restraint in our statements and in our actions, and continue an open dialogue,” he said following the closed-door meeting.
A day before last night’s meeting between Guanglie and his ASEAN counterparts, China pledged about $19 million in defence aid to Cambodia as part of a military agreement signed between the two countries.
The stated purpose of the meeting was for the Chinese official to explain his country’s stance on the South China Sea yesterday, but Defence Minister Tea Banh denied yesterday that Guanglie’s visit was intended to influence the ASEAN talks.
The visit, he said, simply “coincided” with the ministers’ meeting.
Separately, the defence ministers accepted an initiative floated by Prime Minister Hun Sen to look at how Cambodia successfully assimilated Khmer Rouge guerrillas into the government in 1998.
The so-called “win-win” policy put an end to years of civil war.
“Cambodia is proposing a concept paper on the ASEAN Civil War Free Zone, by using our experiences in civil war termination to contribute to peace and stability in the region,” Tea Banh said in opening remarks.