Southeast Asia

South China Sea Dispute Remains Problem for ASEAN

U.S. President Barack Obama (5th L) participates in a family photo with ASEAN leaders during the ASEAN Summit at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, November 19, 2012. U.S. President Barack Obama (5th L) participates in a family photo with ASEAN leaders during the ASEAN Summit at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, November 19, 2012.
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U.S. President Barack Obama (5th L) participates in a family photo with ASEAN leaders during the ASEAN Summit at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, November 19, 2012.
U.S. President Barack Obama (5th L) participates in a family photo with ASEAN leaders during the ASEAN Summit at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, November 19, 2012.
Irwin LoyVOA News
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN] emerged from a key leader summit Tuesday with progress on potential trade alliances and the economy. It still appeared divided, though, on what continues to be a controversial issue: the South China Sea and multiple countries claiming territorial ownership.

Going into this week's leaders summit, ASEAN members had hoped for a resounding show of unity following explosive meetings in July that exposed divisions through the 10-member bloc.

By the end of the summit Tuesday, ASEAN members were claiming some degree of progress on the South China Sea dispute. But the final day of meetings also showed the regional bloc is far from united on the issue.

Philippines take issue

The Philippines, ASEAN’s most outspoken claimant, still objected to how the bloc’s chair, Cambodia, had declared that leaders agreed not to “internationalize” the maritime dispute.

Albert del Rosario is the Philippines’ foreign affairs secretary.

“We think that it is the inherent right of any sovereign country to be able to protect its national interest. So that’s the position we have taken," he said. "As far as we are concerned, the rules on consensus means everyone must be on board. Obviously we’re not on board, so there is no consensus."

China flexes muscle

Four ASEAN countries claim parts of the energy-rich sea. But it is China’s large claim over the sea that has caused disagreements within ASEAN. China in the past has not wanted ASEAN involvement in negotiations concerning the South China Sea.

In July, Cambodia was accused of siding with China on the issue. Any thoughts of a repeat of another public meltdown to end the meetings were quashed Tuesday, however, when Cambodia released a watered down chairman’s statement summarizing the week’s discussions.

“On the issue of the South China Sea, ASEAN leaders agreed to continue to address this issue in the existing ASEAN-China framework,” said Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, speaking through an interpreter.

Officals stress unity

ASEAN officials also were downplaying any disagreements on the issue.

“I think it’s a matter of interpretation," said Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN’s secretary general. "As far as I am concerned there is a consensus that we would like to pursue the issue without having it affecting other constructive, other positive momentum that we are trying to create, that we have achieved here so that we can look into the future. We can look into the horizon that a lot of potentials must be harvested for all of us now. If the interpretation would obstruct my rights to pursue my interest into the future through other channels that was not it was meant. It meant that you have all the rights whatever member state but here we are trying to pursue it within the framework of cooperation, framework of coordination and we will be conscious of the fact that we have a larger agenda up in front of us.”

Consensus or not, ASEAN says there is a renewed commitment to implementing a decade-old Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, known as a DOC - a broad pledge to resolve the matter through peaceful means.

But the bloc appears no closer to actually solving the territorial dispute. With the conclusion of another leaders’ meeting, countries are still unable to peg a timeline to begin negotiations on a long-elusive Code of Conduct [COC], that might settle the dispute.
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