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After Failed Meeting, Cambodia Defends Asean Chairmanship

ASEAN countries' foreign ministers join their hands during a photo session at the 45th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers' Plus three Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, July 10, 2012.
WASHINGTON DC - A government spokesman says Cambodia worked hard to maintain Asean unity during its time as head of the regional bloc, despite criticism.

Asean failed to deliver a joint communique following a major security meeting in Phnom Penh earlier this month, for the first time in 45 years. Members also failed to agree on a code of conduct to reduce tension over the South China sea, where four Asean states have overlapping claims with China.

Regional policy analysts have pointed to Cambodia’s behavior during meetings that favored positions held by China over the South China Sea as a reason for the unprecedented impasse. But Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers, told “Hello VOA” on Monday that Cambodia was in fact trying to keep “a window open for more discussions,” by trying to prevent a dispute, especially with the claims to the sea made by Vietnam and the Philippines.

Cambodian “contained the dispute,” he said, even though it meant Asean members could not agree on a code of conduct or even a joint statement. “This means we didn’t let Asean get into a dispute with China.”

However, critics say it was Cambodia that caused disunity among Asean states, by taking a stalwart position that benefitted China, whose interests lie in bilateral discussions and not with Asean as a united bloc.

Phay Siphan said Cambodia, as Asean chair, does not want to see “war” between member states and China. “We do not want to see that because we used to suffer from war,” he said.

A week after the security meetings, and with the brokering of Indonesia, Asean members finally issued a statement saying they were united in seeing the South China Sea issue resolved under international law and UN conventions. Phay Siphan said this showed “consensus” among the 10 Asean membrer states.

“It is even more beneficial than a joint communique,” he said.