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South China Sea consensus? Not so fast

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Philippine President Benigno Aquino attends an ASEAN meeting in Phnom Penh yesterday, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012. Photograph: Pha Lina/Phnom Penh Post

As Cambodia struggles to keep this week’s ASEAN Summit as smooth as possible following its often-criticised performance at the July meeting, one day in, rifts have already begun to appear regarding the South China Sea issue.

Yesterday, a day after Cambodia announced that regional leaders were in agreement not to “internationalise” disputes within the resource-rich sea, the Philippines said the claim was simply inaccurate.

“Various views were expressed on ASEAN unity that were translated by the chair into an ASEAN consensus. This was not the understanding of both the Philippines and at least one other country,” Filipino Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario told reporters during an interview that took place on the sidelines of yesterday’s meet.

A formal letter was sent to the chair and ASEAN foreign ministers outlining the Philippines’ position, added del Rosario.

One of the chief claimants in the South China Sea, the Philippines has long sought to counter China’s claim by seeking assistance from third-party states – particularly the US.

That position has put them at odds with China, and, at times, China’s supporters within ASEAN, which has pushed for bilateral resolutions.

Discord over the two viewpoints led to fallout during the last summit, when the bloc was unable to agree upon a joint communiqué for the first time in its 45-year-history.

A cautious six-point agreement was later endorsed, but only following intense shuttle diplomacy efforts by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.

Whether those same tensions will undermine this week’s meet is not yet clear.

If the South China Sea does not come up during today’s East Asian Summit, however, the Philippines would definitely raise it, members of the Filipino delegation confirmed yesterday.

Japan and the US, meanwhile, also took hard lines on the issue of the South China Sea, with both of them raising it in meetings with ASEAN member states, stressing concerns over the security threats posed by tensions in the sea.

In a press briefing given late last night, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Secretary of State Kao Kim Hourn confirmed that US President Barack Obama raised the issue in yesterday’s ASEAN-United States leaders meeting, but said there was no immediate response from the regional leaders.

“Each country’s leaders is free to raise any issues,” he said.

The Japanese government, meanwhile, issued a statement following the ASEAN-Japan leaders meet, saying: “Prime Minister Noda raised the issue of the South China Sea, noting that this is of common concern for the international community, and would have a direct impact on peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific.”

But the growing clamour from abroad and disagreements within ASEAN over how to address those outside voices appeared to have fallen on deaf ears for China, which yesterday thanked ASEAN for its commitment to not internationalise the discussion.

“For many years, peace and stability have been maintained in the South China Sea, this is a proof that discussion and communication between China and ASEAN countries are effective and should be valued,” said Qin Gang, spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

All of which puts ASEAN at a delicate impasse. ASEAN officials as well as those from Thailand and Indonesia yesterday cautiously sidestepped questions about whether there had indeed been a consensus among leaders regarding the issue of internationalisation.

After one reporter asked, for the third time, a point blank question as to whether the Cambodian statement regarding consensus was accurate, a Indonesian presidential spokesman, Teuku Faizasyah, would only reply: “I can’t comment on what Cambodia said.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Cheang Sokha at sokha.cheang@phnompenhpost.com
With assistance from Abby Seiff

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