PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Southeast Asian diplomats failed to reach common ground Friday on how to deal with a touchy territorial dispute involving China, as a regional conference ended without a joint statement for the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history.
The failure to issue a statement following the meeting of foreign ministers underscores deep divisions within the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations amid conflicting territorial claims in the resource-rich South China Sea involving four of its members plus China and Taiwan.
ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan of Thailand said the Philippines and Vietnam wanted the statement to include a reference to a recent standoff between China and the Philippines at a shoal in the South China Sea claimed by both countries.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs issued a statement lambasting host Cambodia for “consistently opposing any mention of the Scarborough Shoal at all” and for announcing that a joint communique cannot be issued.
According to the Philippine statement, Manila raised during the five-day conference the standoff that erupted in April between Chinese and Filipino government ships at the disputed Scarborough Shoal off the Philippines’ northwest coast. It said Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario wanted the ASEAN statement to mention that the territorial rift had been discussed.
China opposes efforts to bring the South China Sea disputes into any international arena for discussions, arguing the conflicts should be tackled only between Beijing and each of the rival claimants. Vietnamese and Philippine diplomats have criticized Cambodia, which has close ties with China, for towing Beijing’s line in the meetings in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.
Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said his government does not support any side in the disputes. He added that the failure to issue a statement lies with all ASEAN members, not just Cambodia.
“I requested that we issue the joint communique without mention of the South Shina Sea dispute … but some member countries repeatedly insisted to put the issue of the Scarborough Shoal,” he told reporters.
“I have told my colleagues that the meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers is not a court, a place to give a verdict about the dispute,” he said.
ASEAN’s members announced earlier this week that they had drafted a set of rules governing maritime rights and navigation in the South China Sea, and procedures for when governments disagree. ASEAN then would have to negotiate with China, which is not a member of the group, to finalize what many want to be a legally binding “code of conduct” to prevent armed confrontations in the disputed region.
The ASEAN countries presented their proposal to China at this week’s conference, though Beijing will probably want to water down any language that ties its hands.
The standoff between China and the Philippines in the Scarborough Shoal began when the Philippines accused Chinese fishermen of poaching in its exclusive economic zone, including the shoal. During the tensions, both sides sent government ships to the area.
The Philippines has withdrawn its vessels in the area, but Chinese government ships have remained at the shoal, which Beijing claims to have owned since ancient times.
Vietnam has protested a recent announcement by the China National Offshore Oil Corp. opening nine oil and gas lots for international bidders in areas overlapping with existing Vietnamese exploration blocks. Vietnam says the lots lie entirely within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.
Associated Press writers Hrvoje Hranjski and Jim Gomez contributed to this report from Manila, Philippines.
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