South China Sea dispute wrecks Asean unity

Consensus shattered after Manila challenges Phnom Penh's claim that bloc had agreed not to 'internationalise' disputes with Beijing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2012, 3:49am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2012, 4:04am

Asean unity yet again lay in tatters last night – thwarting a Chinese-backed effort to keep South China Sea territorial disputes off the agenda of today’s international leaders’ summit in Cambodia.

Host Cambodia’s claim on Sunday that the 10 leaders of Southeast Asia had agreed not to “internationalise” the issue by limiting it to meetings with China was directly challenged by the Philippines’ President Benigno Aquino.

“There were several views expressed yesterday on Asean unity which we did not realise would be translated into an Asean consensus,” Aquino told fellow Asean leaders during a meeting with Japan yesterday, according to a government statement.

“For the record, this was not our understanding. The Asean route is not the only route for us.”

Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines and Brunei, dispute China’s claim to virtually the entire South China Sea.

The deal had marked an apparent diplomatic victory for Beijing. Chinese envoys have been lobbying hard on the issue, and Cambodia – a Chinese aid recipient – was once again accused of doing Beijing’s bidding as this year’s chairman of Asean.

“It is a hell of a mess,” said one Asean diplomat. “I fear we could be back to where we started six months ago,” he said, a reference to the Asean meetings in July that failed to produce a routine communique.

“Despite Cambodia’s best efforts, the South China Sea issue cannot be ignored.”

Aquino and other leaders, backed by US President Barack Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, are now expected to raise concerns about the South China Sea during the 18-leader East Asia Summit today. The issue risks overshadowing broader talks about economic co-operation.

Broader regional tensions were also highlighted when Wen met outgoing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and both expressed concern about lingering “militarism” from Japan.

Wen said that he believed tensions with Tokyo had flared because Japan “failed to liquidate militarism” while Lee said that Japan leaning further to the right could become “an unnerving element” in the region, Yonhap news agency reported a spokesman as saying.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said last night Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had confirmed the agreement not to internationalise the issue.

“In today’s meetings, some Asean leaders had very reasonable, very rational remarks when talking about the South China Sea,” he said.