PHNOM PENH - The president of the Philippines, a major Asean claimant to portions of the South China Sea, says the country wants the right to solve its problems on the world stage. But Asean leaders on Tuesday sought to downplay his remarks and said they did not signal a rift within the 10 Southeast Asian nations in the bloc.
Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of Asean, called the difference in remarks between Cambodian officials, who said Sunday Asean would not “internationalize” the issue, and the Philippines a “matter of interpretation.”
“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,” he said.
Asean is trying to reach a consensus on a Declaration of Conduct, or DOC, that would help decrease the likelihood of conflict there. But amid its four claimant states to areas of the sea—Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam—there is concern that the issue is not being resolved. In recent months, clashes have nearly erupted over overlapping claims in the sea, which lies on a major international shipping route.
On Monday, Philippines President Benigno Aquino said his country has a right to “defend its national interests,” including seeking international support for its claims to the sea, outside of Asean.
China, meanwhile, appears to want to keep discussions outside of Asean as a bloc. Analysts say China has a stronger position in bilateral talks with separate states over the sea.
“Asean as a regional organization should not be getting itself involved in the territorial disputes between state and state,” Chinese government spokesman Qin Gang said. “And China will continue to come back [with] sincere dialogue with Asean countries and to fully implement in an effective way the DOC.”
Asean leaders said at the end of talks Tuesday they recognize the importance of the Declaration on the Conduct and want to see a code of conduct agreed upon soon.
Kao Kim Hourn, a secretary of state for the Cambodian Foreign Ministry, said “key elements” of the maritime code are complete, “but I think we need to get full cooperation to get things moving.”
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters Tuesday that “informal” discussions on the code of conduct are under way, in what he called a “very typical Asean way of building things, step by step.”