Southeast Asian countries feud over China

 20 Nov 2012 - 4:53


(From left) Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, China’s Premier Wen Jiabao, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Indonesia’s President Susilo BambangYudhoyono, Laos Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and an unidentified Myanmar official join hands at the Asean plus three commemorative summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, yesterday. 

PHNOM PENH: Southeast Asian leaders feuded yesterday over how to handle tense maritime territorial disputes with China, overshadowing talks at a regional summit meant to strengthen trade and political ties.

The leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations had hoped to present a united front on the South China Sea row as they host Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and US President Barack Obama for annual talks.

But that effort broke down just before Southeast Asian leaders were scheduled to meet Wen, amid divisions between Chinese ally Cambodia and the Philippines.

Cambodia, this year’s Asean chair, said on Sunday that Southeast Asian leaders had agreed not to “internationalise” the disputes and would confine negotiations to those between the bloc and China.

The apparent deal would have been a victory for China, which has long insisted that it should only negotiate directly with rival countries and that the Philippines should not seek support from the United States.

However Philippine President Benigno Aquino yesterday publicly rebuked Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, telling his fellow leaders no such consensus had been reached and he would continue to speak out on the global stage.

“The Philippines... has the inherent right to defend its national interests when deemed necessary,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters, quoting Aquino’s comments to his fellow leaders yesterday morning.

The feud echoed unprecedented infighting at an Asean foreign ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh in July, which ended for the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history without a joint communique.

The Philippines and Vietnam had wanted the communique to make specific reference to their disputes with China. But Cambodia, the hosts of the talks and a close China ally, blocked the moves.

Asean members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan, have claims to parts of the sea, which is home to some of the world’s most important shipping lanes and believed to be rich in fossil fuels.

But China insists it has sovereign rights to virtually all of the sea.

Tensions have risen steadily over the past two years, with the Philippines and Vietnam accusing China of increasingly aggressive diplomatic tactics to stake its claims.

Temperatures could rise again late yesterday when Obama arrives in Phnom Penh to join the East Asia Summit, a two-day event also involving the leaders of Japan, South Korea, India, New Zealand and Australia.

Obama has previously angered China, and emboldened the Philippines, by calling for the rival claimants to agree on a legally binding code of conduct to govern their actions over the sea.