Beijing praises Cambodia's efforts to limit discussions on South China Sea
Host’s efforts to limit discussions on rival territorial claims in South China Sea ‘helped to safeguard unity’ at East Asia Summit
China on Tuesday defended Cambodia's controversial bid to limit international discussions of South China Sea tensions, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman praising Phnom Penh for trying to "safeguard Asean unity".
The comments from Qin Gang came after a day of acrimony at Asean's East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh that saw disputes over the South China Sea overshadow leaders' meetings. Philippine President Benigno Aquino warned that South China Sea issues were "now more urgent and imperative" than ever.
When asked if Beijing supported Phnom Penh's apparent damaging of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' cohesion, Qin said such an argument "didn't hold water".
"What are Cambodia's efforts to damage unity?" he asked. "Actually Cambodia's efforts are to safeguard Asean."
The annual meeting of the 10 leaders of Asean degenerated into rancour on Monday when the Philippines accused Cambodia of misrepresenting the group.
A Cambodian spokesman had announced the night before that the grouping had agreed not to "internationalise" the issue and keep discussions between China and Asean.
Aquino appeared to have won his battle, with a final statement containing no reference to such a pact and extensive discussion of tensions at the Asean East Asia Summit.
Four Asean nations - the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia - dispute China's claim to virtually the entire South China Sea.
"At no time in the contemporary history of the South China Sea has clarification and delineation of maritime areas become more urgent and imperative than they are now," Aquino said.
The annual East Asia Summit comprises the 10 nations of Asean and the leaders of China, the US, Japan, South Korea, Russia, India, as well as Australia and New Zealand.
Several Asean nations raised maritime security issues, backed by US President Barack Obama and other US allies.
"President Obama's message is there needs to be a reduction of the tensions," Deputy US National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said. "There is no reason to risk any potential escalation, particularly when you have two of the world's largest economies - China and Japan - associated with some of those disputes."
The focus of the issue is now shifting to a combined Asean effort to push China to negotiate a binding code of conduct over the sea. A 2012 target has been missed and senior Asean envoys say that while China is continuing to talk, it remains unclear when actual negotiations on an Asean draft can start.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said he remained optimistic there was fresh momentum after days of diplomacy.
But when asked if the code could be completed next year, he said: "We don't need to be straight-jacketed by timetables."
Acknowledging Aquino's sense of urgency, he added: "The problem is that if there are incidents at sea then things might get a little tricky."
Other diplomats noted there was greater co-ordination among Asean members in standing up to China. "Manila took the lead, but it was clear there was support elsewhere to keep discussions international," one said.
Du Jifen , a Southeast Asia specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Cambodia helped keep the territorial disputes from dominating the Asean summit.
But Du said China may not get the upper hand in the next Asean summit as the Philippines and Vietnam are still attempting to internationalise the dispute.
"The advantages enjoyed by China can only last for now. It is not permanent," he said.
Additional reporting by Teddy Ng