Foreign ministers from the 10-member Asean bloc have tried to hammer out a final communique in Cambodia this week, which has held up progress on a draft code of conduct aimed at soothing tension in the flashpoint South China Sea. China claims sovereignty over nearly all of the resource-rich sea, but the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei among others have competing claims in the area.
The Philippines said “it deplores the non-issuance of a joint communique... which was unprecedented in Asean’s 45-year existence.” It had insisted Asean refer to a stand-off in June with China over a rocky outcrop known as the Scarborough Shoal, but Cambodia resisted.
Taking “strong exception” to Cambodia, the Philippine statement said divisions undercut previous Asean agreements on tackling disputes as a unit, “and not in a bilateral fashion — the approach which its northern neighbour has been insisting on”. Cambodian foreign minister Hor Namhong said he could “not accept that the joint communique has become the hostage of the bilateral issue between the Philippines and China.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had expressed hope of Asean unity and had urged progress on the code of conduct, which is seen as reducing the chances of conflict in the South China Sea. Analysts said the friction could “contaminate” future negotiations between Asean and China.