SE Asia meeting in disarray over sea dispute with China
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) – Southeast Asian nations have failed to reach agreement on a maritime dispute involving China, ending a foreign ministers’ summit in disarray after Beijing appeared to split the 10 countries over the contentious issue.
The Philippines said in a statement on Friday that it “deplores” the failure of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit to address the worsening row, and criticized Cambodia in unusually strong language for its handling of the issue.
China has been accused of using its heavy influence over summit chair Cambodia and several other ASEAN members to block regional-level discussions on the issue and attempts to agree a binding maritime Code of Conduct.
The Philippines said it took “strong exception” to Cambodia’s statement that the non-issuance of a communiqué was due to “bilateral conflict between some ASEAN member states and a neighboring country”.
It said it had only requested that the communiqué mention the recent standoff between Chinese and Philippine ships at the Scarborough Shoal, a horseshoe-shaped reef in waters that both countries claim.
“The Chair has consistently opposed any mention of the Scarborough Shoal at all in the Joint Communiqué and today announced that a Joint Communiqué ‘cannot be issued’,” the Philippine statement said.
The failure to issue a joint statement marks a sharp deterioration in efforts to cool tensions following recent incidents of naval brinkmanship over the oil-rich waters.
China, whose trade and investment ties with Cambodia have surged in recent years, has warned that “external forces” should not get involved in the dispute. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also lay claim to parts of the South China Sea.
The United States has stressed it is neutral in the long-running maritime dispute, despite offering to help boost the Philippines’ decrepit military forces.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played down the deadlock within ASEAN at a news conference in Phnom Penh on Thursday evening.
“I have worked in many multilateral settings, and it is not at all unusual for much more mature organizations to be working on and discussing and even arguing about certain matters past the deadlines in order to try to see if there’s a way forward,” she said.
(Reporting By Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh; writing by Stuart Grudgings in Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)