Tired of being labelled the “bad boy” in the ongoing drama around the South China Sea, the Cambodian delegation to the recent ASEAN foreign ministers summit yesterday said it was China’s loudest critic on the issue – the Philippines – that had ultimately stripped language related to its recent arbitration victory from a joint statement.
Speaking to reporters on his return to Phnom Penh International Airport, Foreign Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry chided critics for accusations Cambodia had pushed to strip references to The Hague verdict, something for which Chinese officials have publicly thanked them.
“We would like to say that the Philippines foreign minister acknowledged it’s an issue between the Philippines and China,” Sounry said. “The Philippines stated in the meeting that they do not want ASEAN to be involved in the issue, so they took out the arbitration verdict from the joint statement.”
On July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague struck down China’s long-held claim to large swathes of the South China Sea, a decision that was hailed as a victory by the Philippines.
Diplomats at the recently concluded ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting accused Cambodia, China’s key ASEAN ally, of being the sole obstacle to strongly rebuking the Asian behemoth in the joint statement for its stated refusal to abide by the ruling.
The watered-down statement ultimately released on Monday made no mention of the arbitration ruling, and only conveyed the serious concern expressed by “some ministers” at China’s land reclamations while pushing for “non-militarisation and self restraint”.
Sounry reiterated that Cambodia had maintained its sovereignty and was only looking for a peaceful, bilateral resolution to the issue.
“And the accusation that Cambodia had received $600 million from China as a gift to obstruct [the joint statement] is an insult to Cambodia, which is a sovereign state,” he added, referencing a recent $530 million pledge that Hun Sen revealed after meeting Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang in Mongolia last week.
Less than a day before the ASEAN statement’s release, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi thanked Sokhon for holding out against pressure from other ASEAN nations to insert a mention of the arbitration ruling or rebuke China for its reluctance to abide by the ruling.
Following a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday, Philippines Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay seemingly lent weight to Sounry’s argument, saying his country had agreed to approach the issue bilaterally and did not insist on putting the South China Sea dispute in the statement.
But by yesterday, he was offering a different account, saying the Philippines had “vigorously” lobbied to push ASEAN nations to take a critical stand on China’s claims to the contested waters, a claim backed by diplomats privy to the discussions.
Yesterday, Kerry took a soft approach, expressing satisfaction at the joint statement’s mention of legal rights and legal processes regarding the contested waters, even though it did not explicitly mention the arbitration ruling.
“Sometimes, frankly, at a meeting like that and in diplomacy, you don’t always have to include every single word that may, in fact, sometimes make it harder to get to the dialogue that you want to get to,” he said, according to the Straits Times.