Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday slammed reports that Cambodia had succumbed to pressure from China and helped kill a strongly worded ASEAN statement on the South China Sea dispute, even as he parroted Beijing’s pre-emptive dismissal of an upcoming Hague ruling on the issue.
The statement, which expressed “serious concern” over the rising tensions and emphasised the importance of “non-militarisation” and “self-restraint” when it came to land reclamation in the contested waters, emerged following a meeting between Southeast Asian foreign ministers and Chinese representatives in Kunming last week.
Released by Malaysia at the end of the two-day talks, the missive, characterised as a media statement, was retracted within hours of being issued.
ASEAN diplomatic sources quoted in international media said Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia had withdrawn their support for the statement under pressure from China.
In a speech yesterday, Hun Sen rejected those claims as “unacceptable”, accusing unnamed countries of “using Cambodia to counter China”.
“They use us and curse us,” said the premier, who noted discord had been a recurring theme in ASEAN talks on the matter.
“It is not fair for Cambodia. They don’t dare blame Brunei, but our country is small; they are haughty and insulting with Cambodia and I will not allow anyone to insult the Khmer nation. I am not supporting any one country, but I need justice.”
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.
While China has been transforming shallow reefs into artificial islands to support airstrips, the Philippines has taken its case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, which is expected to rule on the issue in the coming weeks.
In his speech yesterday, Hun Sen also took aim at the international court, accusing it of bias and suggesting a “political conspiracy” was afoot. “This is not about laws, it is totally about politics. I will not support any judgment by the court,” he said.
Cambodia has long been seen as a close ally of China, its largest trading partner, a perception reinforced in 2012 when, as the ASEAN chair, it helped kill a similar statement on the South China Sea – the first time in its 45-year history it failed to issue a joint statement after a foreign ministers’ meeting.
Beijing asserts that the South China Sea is a bilateral issue between claimant states and China, though the disputants want ASEAN to work as a group.
Regional analyst Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, said the joint statement, a version of which was released in full by Vietnamese state media, was tougher than previous positions, particularly a paragraph that draws a direct link between the bloc’s relationship with Beijing and the issue.
However, the diplomatic confusion that surrounded last week’s media statement once again showed the bloc’s inability to present a unified front, Thayer said, calling it a “bureaucratic snafu”.
“What is ASEAN’s position? Do they stand by that statement which all of them drew up . . . or were they misrepresented? And if they did consent to it and then backtrack, they should say why,” Thayer said.
Additional reporting by Shaun Turton and AFP