Robert Carmichael & Mary Kozlovski
Phnom Penh. Indonesia has slammed the inability of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to agree to a common position over the South China Sea as “utterly irresponsible.”
The 10-member bloc remained unable to agree on Thursday on the wording over recent actions by China in its ongoing disputes with Asean member states in contested maritime areas.
The issue has dominated this week’s meetings in the Cambodian capital.
Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, which holds key shipping lanes and is believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves. Asean members Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines also have claims.
The Philippines wanted Asean’s statement to reference China’s recent “aggressive” actions near the Scarborough Shoal. However Asean works on consensus, and at least one nation — believed to be 2012 chair Cambodia — blocked that.
“Whenever there are incidents, that’s actually the moment that we should reinforce our efforts, not be grinding to a halt,” said Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who declined to comment on whether he believed Cambodia was doing China’s bidding.
“This is a time when Asean should be seen to be acting as one,” he said. “I find it perplexing, and to be candid and honest, really, really disappointing.”
However, Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan downplayed the failure as “a hiccup.”
“We thought we could get one united position on everything. That’s the expectation, that’s the hope,” he said, adding that efforts to reach a deal would continue.
Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario told the Asean Regional Forum that the international community should be worried about China’s behavior, which he said amounted to “gross violations” of international conventions and was “part and parcel of [China's] creeping imposition of its claim over the entire South China Sea.”
Also on Thursday, visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said countries with competing claims should not resort to threats or force.
The US would not take sides, Clinton said, and multilateral bodies such as the regional forum should play a role in formulating rules of behavior and ways to broker deals.
Territorial disputes were best resolved directly between competing claimants whenever possible, Clinton said, although more complex disputes could warrant a multilateral approach.
Meanwhile, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Thursday welcomed an earlier announcement by the US that it had eased sanctions on Asean member Myanmar, allowing US businesses to invest in the country.
“There’s still more reform to do, but we’re very pleased with the way this is moving,” she said, adding that the newly opened door to investment was “fantastic.”
Cambodia is hosting a string of Asean meetings from July 9-13 for more than two-dozen foreign ministry delegations, including the US, China, Russia, Japan and the EU.