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Asean treads lightly on South China Sea, as observers point to Cambodia’s support for Beijing

Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn (right) is greeted by Philippines Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano at an ongoing Asean summit in Manila. AFP
Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn (right) is greeted by Philippines Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano at an ongoing Asean summit in Manila. AFP

Asean treads lightly on South China Sea, as observers point to Cambodia’s support for Beijing

Asean representatives managed to overcome an impasse late yesterday in Manila, releasing a joint communiqué that included references to Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, but may have been diluted in part by Cambodia’s resistance to a strong stance against Beijing’s territorial ambitions proposed by Vietnam.

Ahead of the annual foreign ministers meeting of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Vietnamese delegation on Friday night proposed a slew of changes to a joint communiqué that had been planned for Saturday but only ended up being released late last night when a consensus was finally reached.

Among the tougher language nixed from the final draft was a call for a legally binding “code of conduct” over the South China Sea that would frame Asean-China relations in years to come. A code has been in the works for years but never agreed upon, and Beijing has been strongly opposed to a legally binding document, with Cambodia frequently criticised for appearing to toe China’s line.

“Vietnam is adamant and China is effectively using Cambodia to champion its interests,” one diplomat said before the communiqué was released yesterday.

In the communiqué that was finally released, there is no mention of seeking a legally binding code of conduct. However, the communiqué noted China’s “land reclamation” in the area and called for non-militarisation, but text that more specifically concerned the “presence of military assets” proposed in an earlier draft was removed.

“The land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region,” it reads.

It further emphasised the importance of “non-militarization and self-restraint” by all countries involved in the dispute.

China has laid claim to nearly all of the strategically important South China Sea – through which 30 percent of all global maritime trade passes. In addition to contesting territorial waters with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, China has attempted to solidify its claims through the construction of artificial islands that are capable of hosting military bases or otherwise projecting military power.

Along with the Philippines – which, until President Rodrigo Duterte’s election, had been a vocal critic of China on the issue – the Cambodian delegation struck down the language, according to a partial draft of the earlier communiqué obtained by The Post.

According to Carlyle Thayer, a regional security expert at the University of New South Wales, the move reflects Vietnam’s desire for Asean to be a “layer of insulation, however thin” against China’s growing influence. “The Philippines and Cambodia are clearly supporters of deleting and watering down strong language and references that could be construed as referring to or critical of China,” he wrote, characterising the Kingdom as China’s “surrogate”.

Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University in Thailand said in an email that the two countries’ governments “appear to be competing for the favor of China in opposing any meaningful statements on the [South China Sea] issue”.

Requests for comment from Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn and ministry spokesman Chum Sounry went unanswered. In a statement by the ministry released on Thursday, Sokhonn said “Cambodia has always been consistent on our neutrality because it is our constitutionally inherent policy.”

Asean peace, it continued, could not be achieved “through polarization or worse still agitation over the already heated tension”.

Thayer, however, challenged how beneficial the Kingdom’s accommodating position towards China on the South China Sea actually is. “Doesn’t Cambodia lose some freedom of manoeuvre to address domestic issues arising from China’s overwhelming economic presence in Cambodia? Can Cambodia afford to continue to alienate the EU [European Union], the US [United States] and other countries?”

For Chambers, the Cambodian government’s motivations appear “material in nature”. “Hun Sen is expecting massive amounts of aid, investment and trade from China,” he said.

Despite disagreement, the body did adopt a framework with China for negotiations that could start this year for the code of conduct. Analysts have pointed out, however, that getting to this point has taken 15 years of negotiations – time that has worked to the benefit of China’s territorial ambitions.

According to the Foreign Ministry Facebook page, Sokhonn met with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, and attended bi-lateral talks with South Korea, Sri Lanka and Turkey on the sidelines of the summit.

Read more: Red carpet for Chinese investors

Additional reporting by AFP

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