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ASEAN Summit wraps sans fireworks

US President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda
US President Barack Obama (2nd L), Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda (L), Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (2nd R) and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (R) at the East Asia Summit. Heng Chivoan

US President Barack Obama (2nd L), Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda (L), Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (2nd R) and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (R) at the East Asia Summit. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

After days of simmering tension, the 21st ASEAN Summit managed to close without a bang. But while major conflicts remained contained this time, few of the diplomatic rifts to have surfaced in recent days appeared mended.

Unlike in July, a joint public statement was issued with relatively little brouhaha. But behind the scenes, in private conversations and public comments alike, ASEAN unity seemed little more than rhetoric, as non-ASEAN states pulled the bloc in two directions over how to address issues in the South China Sea.

Following yesterday’s high-level East Asia Summit, which included ASEAN heads of state and their counterparts from the US, China, Japan, Australia and others, officials painted markedly different pictures of what had occurred behind closed doors.

The Philippines held an impromptu press conference after the close of the summit to lodge its dissatisfaction, issuing a statement explaining precisely how it had raised the issue, comments that never made it into the Chairman’s Statement.

“At no time in the contemporary history of the South China Sea have clarification and delimitation of maritime areas become more urgent and imperative than they are now,” Filipino President Benigno Aquino said in the meeting, according to the statement issued by the delegation.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda voiced his concern a day earlier, while US President Barack Obama followed suit, saying disputes in the sea posed a security threat that extended beyond the parties directly involved, according to meeting attendants and the White House.   

“We think [bilateral discussion is] not the way to resolve the issues in the South China Sea. We believe these need to be done consistent with international law and discussed in multilateral fora,” US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said in a White House press briefing. “The US is not a claimant in the South China Sea, but we have significant interest there given its role in the global economy.”

But while dissent over how to handle disputes in the resource-rich body of water appeared in at least three high-level meetings during the past two days, little public evidence of that surfaced.

In the finalised versions of joint statements and chairman’s statements for the East Asia Summit, ASEAN-US Leaders Meeting and ASEAN-Japan Summit, the topic was addressed only in the vaguest of terms concerning maritime security. No mention was made of disagreement over how disputes should be addressed. At times, no mention was made of the South China Sea whatsoever.

But over the past days, clashes over how to address it have loomed large. While the Philippines has been most vociferous in its dissatisfaction, other countries have pressed their point. After Cambodia announced there had been an ASEAN agreement not to “internationalise” disputes within the sea, the Philippines flatly denied it, repeatedly stressing to the media there had been no such consensus.

On Tuesday, Singapore admitted it too found the Cambodian claim regarding ASEAN unity lacking, with a Foreign Affairs spokesman saying Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had raised the issue.

“The draft Chairman’s Statement of the 21st ASEAN Summit contained some inaccuracies that had to be corrected, especially when they misquoted our Leaders on the discussions on the South China Sea. The Philippines has explained its position to the Chair, as have Brunei, Indonesia, and Vietnam. We have done likewise,” a Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said in an email, adding later that they felt the finalised version proved relatively accurate.

“During the ASEAN Retreat discussion, the ASEAN Leaders had agreed that the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, by definition, should only be negotiated between ASEAN and China. However, this does not mean that other countries [outside ASEAN] have no interest in the issue,” the email continued.  

In spite of the apparent discord, however, all seemed keen to avoid the mistakes of the July summit, during which the bloc failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in its 45-year history.

Prime Minister Hun Sen
Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks on the closing day of the ASEAN and East Asia summits, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012 in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

Even China, which was pilloried in July for having exerted undue pressure on its close ally Cambodia to bury touchy territorial disputes, stressed that it remained open to “frank” discussion.

“China adheres to a policy of good neighbourliness... and we are dedicated to maintaining peace and stability in South China Sea,” said China’s Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying. “We disagreed [over] internationaliz[ing] the issue and [Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jibao] also mentioned that at his meeting with the ASEAN leaders. He had candid and fruitful discussions with ASEAN countries.”

But few seemed more keen to end on a diplomatic note than Cambodia.

In April, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s closing remarks included fiery rebukes against political analysts and opposition leaders alike. Eschewing any such opportunity for off the cuff remarks yesterday, the premier read from a prepared statement where he outlined the main points from each meeting.

Speaking for less than 30 minutes, he then announced he would be unable to take questions, pleading exhaustion.

“I’m not afraid to respond to all types of questions,” he said. “I can speak for five hours without a stop,” he continued, explaining that in this case he was exhausted and upset over the death of the King Father Norodom Sihanouk. “I cannot control myself from shedding tears.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Cheang Sokha at sokha.cheang@phnompenhpost.com ; Abby Seiff at abby.seiff@phnompenhpost.com ; Vong Sokheng at sokheng.vong@phnompenhpost.com

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