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ASEAN diplomacy all at sea


Philippines Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario attends the ASEAN Regional Forum Foreign Ministers’ Retreat in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Hong Menea/Phnom Penh Post

The headaches at number 3, Samdech Hun Sen Street, have just been getting worse since the ASEAN summit at Phnom Penh’s Peace Palace in June descended into an ungainly squabble.

Cambodian diplomats and politicians at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have found themselves nose diving into a protracted bilateral dogfight with the Philippines – that has many commentators crowing is unbefitting of the ASEAN chair.

How Cambodia ended up trading barbs for weeks after the summit with a country separated from it by Vietnam and more than 1,000 kilometres of ocean has left many scratching their heads.

For the third time this week a Cambodian ambassador yesterday publicly bought into the dispute, which has raged over who was responsible for the failure of ASEAN to issue a foreign ministers joint communiqué during the summit for the first time in its 45-year history.

In The Japan Times Online yesterday, Cambodia’s ambassador in Tokyo, Hor Monirath, rehashed well-worn accusations that the Philippines and Vietnam had “hijacked” the communiqué by insisting it specifically mentioned their bilateral disputes with China over the South China Sea.

Cambodia’s assertion that bilateral disputes were an inappropriate topic for the communiqué  has infuriated Manila, which counters that the hosts obstinately thwarted any attempt to even negotiate over the contentious sea.

The Philippines, Vietnam and a handful of other ASEAN countries all make claims to the immensely valuable waters through which about half the world’s shipping passes and which China argues belongs almost entirely to them.

Officials at the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Philippines Embassy in Phnom Penh were not available for comment yesterday.

Some cheeky commentators and one anonymous diplomat quoted in The New York Times, have suggested Cambodia was a little too close to cash-riddled China rather than its ASEAN brothers during the talks.

Monirath, the son of Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, suggested in his article yesterday that “some media have gone as far as to try to paint a bleak picture of Cambodia’s Chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations”, and defended the ASEAN chair’s actions during the summit.

“Cambodia tried to prevent the dispute from further flaring up and to avoid adding fuel to the fire,” he said in the “clarification” published by the Japanese news outlet.

But this latest retort came just two days after Phnom Penh’s ambassador to Manila was publicly summonsed by the Philippines to explain what they deemed was an inflammatory letter to the editor published in the Philippines Star and is, if anything, only likely to exacerbate increasingly heated diplomatic relations.

Both the Cambodian Foreign Ministry and the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs have engaged in public finger pointing, far away from the private corridors of civil diplomatic banter, variously accusing each other of “dirty politics”, “souring the mood” and “sabotage” at the summit.

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said he was disappointed by the language and the fact that after Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa flew around the region to negotiate a face-saving ASEAN statement of principles on the South China Sea, the feud has continued.

“It seems at the foreign affairs level, Indonesia has done something positive already but it has not been able to unite or reunite and reconcile the two sides,” he said.

“I think we have talked enough about it [and] we should move on after this ASEAN statement; otherwise, you are playing into the Chinese hands.”

An undersecretary at the Indonesia Embassy in Phnom Penh who declined to be named, said the country “was always ready to step in whenever they need us to step in, but we still need for both sides to agree”.

ASEAN prides itself on a special relationship between members, dubbed the “ASEAN way” but one might wonder if the post-summit events have been an example of diplomacy the normal way or the ASEAN way.



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