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Breakdowns Overshadow Accomplishments as Asean Meeting Ends

ASEAN countries' Foreign Ministers at the opening of the 45th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 9, 2012
ASEAN countries' Foreign Ministers at the opening of the 45th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 9, 2012

Asean members on Friday could not agree on a final joint statement at the end of eight days of meetings, underscoring divisions among its members over the South China Sea issue.

“Some” members wanted to include in a statement that Asean had not come to an agreement on that issue, while other members did not want that failure included, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters on Friday.

“We had agreed on most of the points,” he said. “There were more than 100 points in the joint communique and the only remaining issue was the dispute among some countries in Asean with China in the South China Sea. Therefore, I think we should not have taken the joint communique as a hostage of their bilateral disputes with other country in the region.”

The result was no official joint statement, despite achievements in other areas.

“Some countries still kept insisting on putting in the Scarborough Shoal issue, which is a bilateral dispute between the Philippines and China,” Hor Namhong said in the press briefing. “And some still insisted on putting the dispute between Vietnam and China on an exclusive economic zone and a sea dispute, in the joint communique.”

He called these requests “unacceptable,” and laid the blame for the breakdown on “the whole of Asean.”

Asean members had hoped to put together a code of conduct as a negotiation point with China. The code would govern the behavior of naval vessels in the areas under dispute, but it would not settle the overlapping claims issue at the heart of the issue. By late Thursday, the 10 member states could not come up with agreed-upon language for the code of conduct, especially whether to address Scarborough Shoal, a small atoll surrounded by rich fishing grounds claimed by both China and the Philippines.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told Bloomberg News on Thursday that the “impasse” on the code of conduct was because of Cambodia’s recalcitrance and the “pressure, duplicity, intimidation” of China.

Some analysts have suggested that Cambodia could play a major role in helping solve the decades-long dispute over the South China Sea, which sees overlapping claims by China and Taiwan and Asean members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The sea contains a number of island chains and undersea oil reserves and is a major waterway for global sea transportation.

However, the breakdown in talks this week shows how divisive the issue can be.

Phat Kosal, a researcher for Asian affairs at the University of Southern California, told “Hello VOA” Thursday, that the issue is unlikely to be resolved under Cambodia’s chairmanship of Asean this year.

Major powers like China and the US are involved in the issue, and Asean has remained divided over it, he said.

Speaking from Cambodia, where she attended meetings among regional leaders, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US would not take sides in the South China Sea issue, but that the US has interests in maintaining stability there. China considers the sea as a core strategic interest as well.

That means Asean members may polarize between the two, Phat Kosal said. Negotiation is made even harder because the dispute itself is older than Asean as a group.

If Asean can’t speak with one voice, “it will be weak as before, which means speaking more than doing,” he said. “Mostly, we can’t put pressure on big superpower countries like China and the US.”