By Lauren Crothers
PHNOM PENH (AA) – Southeast Asian nation foreign ministers finally released a joint communique Monday that included South China Sea concerns, but it failed to mention a recent ruling by an arbitration court that rejected Chinese claims to the maritime area.
Hours later, China’s state news agency Xinhua reported that its foreign minister, Wang Yi, was pleased with Cambodia’s position — the Southeast Asian country is reported to have been responsible for days of deadlock, after it objected to the Philippines request for the communique to include mention of the landmark legal ruling.
Monday’s statement, which was made after the 10-member bloc’s foreign ministers met in Vientiane over the weekend, now includes eight paragraphs on the maritime dispute, which centers around territorial claims by China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines.
“We remain seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments and took note of the concerns expressed by some Ministers on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region,” the statement said.
It added that ministers emphasized “the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea.”
The statement made no mention, however, of the decision earlier this month by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which ruled in favor of the Philippines in a case brought against China’s claims to the area in January 2013.
Last month, before the ruling, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said his party “does not support, and more so is against, any declaration by ASEAN to support the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in relation to the South China Sea dispute”.
Billy Chia-Lung Tai, a Cambodia-based human rights consultant and lecturer on international dispute resolution, is set to be a panelist at a talk on the issue in the German cultural center in Phnom Penh this week.
He told Anadolu Agency on Monday that “on one hand, [the ministers] did find a position, but on the other, it’s a bit of a nothing statement as well.”
“ASEAN is fundamentally built on idea of consensus, that’s why there have been so many problems with the communiques; they have to be made jointly with no-one left out. It’s not a case of majority rules, so to find consensus, they will have to dilute some issues,” Tai said.
The fact that non-militarization is mentioned at all means “there would be an element of begrudgingness” on Cambodia’s part, and Tai said it’s “possible” that it was included on the condition that the arbitration court ruling was not.
Cambodia’s siding with China — one of its largest financial benefactor — on the issue is a sign that such patronage “doesn’t come for free,” Tai said.
“This will create conflict within the ASEAN community and perhaps frustration and resentment.”
During the 2012 ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh — when Cambodia was chair of the bloc — the group failed to issue a joint communique for the first time because of Cambodia’s unwillingness to include the maritime issue.
Last month, an ASEAN statement on the issue was also issued and then quickly retracted.
In reference to the South China Sea issue being left out of the first draft of the new communique, The Cambodia Daily on Monday quoted Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan as saying that Cambodia does not want to be involved in the maritime dispute and wants “a resolution that maintains relations and cooperation”.
He also denied that Cambodia was a “puppet of China.”
Commenting on the initial failure to mention the South China Sea issue, Sophal Ear, author or Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy and Associate Professor of Diplomacy & World Affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, told Anadolu Agency on Monday that siding with China was making Cambodia look bad.
“It doesn’t do Cambodia much good from the standpoint of ASEAN to keep doing this. Since 2012, it’s making Cambodia look completely in the pocket of China,” he said.
He added that Cambodia should be reminded of the African proverb: — “A man whose hand is another man’s pocket must go wherever he goes.”
“A country that does not have its own foreign policy, but follows the dictates of another country’s is essentially a colony. Is that really what Cambodia wants to be?” he asked.