Hours before ASEAN foreign ministers released a long-negotiated, but ultimately watered down communiqué on the contentious South China Sea, China’s foreign minister singled out Cambodia for praise for holding out against a push for a stronger statement.
Significantly absent was any mention of the recent verdict at The Hague, which nullified the majority of China’s claims, which lie in conflict with four ASEAN members.
“China highly appreciates Cambodia and other ASEAN countries taking charge of impartiality and safeguarding impartiality,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a statement. “History will prove that the Cambodian side’s maintained position is correct.”
Wang went on to take a jab at an “external force” that was looking to stoke the issue – a thinly veiled reference to the US, which has pushed the Asian behemoth to honour the arbitration ruling.
“We will not permit any external force to seek to exploit and hype up the so-called South China Sea arbitration case and bring chaos to this region,” Wang said.
ASEAN’s diluted statement, released yesterday morning at a meeting of foreign ministers in Laos, makes no mention of the July 12 arbitration ruling in the case brought by the Philippines, instead acknowledging the concern of “some ministers” at China’s land reclamation activities and pushing for “non-militarisation and self-restraint”.
“We remain seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments and took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region,” the statement reads.
One diplomat said they had to come out with a statement or else it would seem “that ASEAN is in disarray”, with another diplomat calling it a “compromise statement”.
The stalemate in the lead-up to the meet had raised concerns of a repeat of the 2012 ASEAN summit hosted by group chair Cambodia, when backroom bickering over the South China Sea resulted in the release of no joint statement at all – a first for the 10-nation bloc.
Over the weekend, Cambodia was widely criticised for stonewalling any attempts to insert strong language referencing the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, which invalidated China’s claim to a lion’s share of the sea.
But government spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday dismissed any claims that China’s public appreciation of Cambodia’s stance meant there was any collusion between the two countries.
“It is unfair to say that,” Siphan said. “Everyone can doubt us and accuse us.”
Siphan said Cambodia had maintained its stand that only parties that were directly involved should be involved in any resolution.
“We don’t want to see a third party in this,” he said. “The parties involved should solve it – that is fair.”
Regional analyst Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, said there was no need for China to push Prime Minister Hun Sen on this issue because he was already compliant towards their position.
“He [Hun Sen] bandwagons with China by showing his support on an issue of little relevance to Cambodia in order to ingratiate himself to the leadership in Beijing in the expectation of further political and material support for the Hun Sen regime,” Thayer said.
Beijing is one of Cambodia’s largest providers of aid and financial assistance, with the Chinese announcing a $530 million three-year aid package just last week, coinciding with Cambodia’s reiteration of its decision to disregard the South China Sea arbitration ruling.
Thayer said Cambodia would likely not face any real backlash for staying in lockstep with Beijing but would instead move affected ASEAN members – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei – closer to the US, further dividing the bloc.
“The current rift shows that Cambodia is the odd country out, [interested] in pursuing the narrow interests of the Hun Sen regime at the expense of the common interests of the littoral and maritime states,” Thayer said.
Additional reporting by AFP