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Cambodia again blocks ASEAN statement on South China Sea

Officials, including Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon (third right), pose for a group photo during the opening ceremony of the 49th annual ASEAN ministerial meeting in Vientiane yesterday. AFP
Officials, including Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon (third right), pose for a group photo during the opening ceremony of the 49th annual ASEAN ministerial meeting in Vientiane yesterday. AFP

Cambodia again blocks ASEAN statement on South China Sea

Cambodia has come under fire yet again for blocking language related to the contentious South China Sea issue from appearing in an ASEAN joint statement, just weeks after an international arbitration decision dismissed China’s territorial claims to the waters.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon is leading a delegation to the 49th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Vientiane, where Southeast Asian diplomats, on the condition of anonymity, have said that Cambodia was the only nation blocking a joint statement on the contested waters.

“It’s very grave. Cambodia just opposes almost everything, even reference to respect for legal and diplomatic processes, which already has been in previous statements,” the diplomat said on Saturday.

A draft of the communique obtained by AFP showed the section titled “South China Sea” left blank.

Cambodia and Laos have been criticised for their reluctance to condemn China’s aggressive claims in the South China Sea, with observers pointing to the heavy financial assistance and investment the two countries receive from the Asian behemoth.

Cambodia last month was blamed for preventing a strongly worded ASEAN statement on the South China Sea dispute, as it was in 2012 when it was the chair of the 10-nation group.

This week’s ASEAN meet comes in the wake of an international arbitration case brought against China by the Philippines, that saw the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague rule that China’s claims to the lion’s share of the sea were largely invalid.

Yesterday, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan again reiterated Cambodia’s stance of staying out of the dispute, a position stated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ahead of the arbitration ruling.

“Why are those individuals [ASEAN members], which tend to support the US, pushing Cambodia to support this or that,” he asked yesterday. “They have a trend of supporting the US, which is against China, but they accuse Cambodia because Cambodia is a close friend to China.”

One of the reasons Cambodia and Laos – two of ASEAN’s smaller, poorer and most-recent members – are able to stonewall attempts to issue a joint statement is because of a consensus rule, which effectively gives them veto power.

But recent talk of utilising a variant of the so-called ASEAN minus X rule – which has allowed certain members to embrace economic policies while giving others a longer timeline to adapt – might not be so effective in more politicised areas, said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the Australia-based Lowy Institute for International policy.

“It would clearly have to be a different system. In economics, the ‘X’ countries are expected to eventually ‘catch up’ to the rest of ASEAN,” he said yesterday. “That wouldn’t make sense in the political-security context.”

He added that removing the consensus rule and allowing a few member nations to release strongly worded statements could be a double edged sword. “It would be difficult in an ASEAN-minus system to pressure holdouts into going beyond their comfort zone, to join the ASEAN consensus. So in that way it could let Cambodia off the hook too easily.”

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