Asean countries made minor progress on the South China Sea issue on Friday, issuing a six-point statement that sought to rectify their failure last week to agree on a joint communique that was blamed on Cambodia’s close relationship with China.
The “Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea” reaffirms Asean’s commitment to resolving the South China Sea issue under UN conventions and international law.
The statement made no mention of specific incidents that have occurred in disputed waters of the sea, but Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters it expressed a “stance” on the sea and should “repair” last week’s aborted Asean communique. “It will rectify the failure last week,” he said.
Cambodia, which is the head of Asean this year, has been heavily criticized for stonewalling in Asean security meetings last week, taking a position that favored China in talks over a code of conduct for the sea. Asean states failed to agree on a code of conduct and then failed to issue the communique, a first in 45 years.
Friday’s statement, announced in Cambodia after talks between Hor Namhong and Indonesia’s foreign minster, Marty Natalegawa, on Thursday, says Asean’s foreign ministers are committed to a full Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
It calls for “the continued exercise of self-restraint” and “non-use of force” between claimants. And it calls for intensified consultations on the issue.
Independent analyst Lao Monghay told VOA Khmer Friday that the statement was a “slight advance” on the issue, making it clear that Asean wants to follow international laws and UN conventions. The statement also unifies the position of Asean, he said.
However, in Friday’s news conference, Hor Namhong blamed “two countries” for last week’s communique failure, saying there was likely “a plan behind the scenes against Cambodia,” Reuters reported.
In a statement on its official website, the Philippines’ State Department said Cambodia was “doing Beijing’s bidding” by refusing to include specific disputes, such as that over the Scarborough Shoals, which lay in disputed waters, in the joint communique.
Responding to criticism of Cambodia’s handling of the issue last week, Hor Namhong said Friday he had said in last week’s talks that Cambodia “is not a court during the meetings, Asean is not a court to decide who is right and who is wrong.”
Analysts say China is reticent to see a unified Asean on the issue and has been working behind the scenes to divide Asean over it. Cambodia is a close friend to China in the region and a recipient of heavy amounts of Chinese aid.
Richard Cronin, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based security think tank, said Asean countries need to talk to China “collectively about how to deal with the boundary issues and about a code of conduct.”