No Asean unity in sea row with China

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12:40 AM November 20th, 2012

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By: DJ Yap, November 20th, 2012 12:40 AM

President Benigno Aquino III. AP

PHNOM PENH—President Benigno Aquino on Monday said the Philippines would keep speaking out on the global stage over its territorial dispute with China, as an effort by Southeast Asian nations to forge a united stand fell apart.

Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) decided on Sunday to ask China to start formal talks “as soon as possible” on crafting a legally binding code of conduct in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) aimed at preventing violence over disputed territories.

But the effort at speaking as one proved short-lived, with the Asean leaders feuding on Monday over how to handle the territorial disputes between China and four of the bloc’s members—Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

The Asean leaders, holding their 21st summit here, had hoped to present a united front on the West Philippine Sea territorial rows as they hosted Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and US President Barack Obama for annual talks.

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

Cambodia, chair of this year’s summit, said on Sunday that Asean leaders had agreed not to “internationalize” 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.

But President Aquino on Monday 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 Asean route is not the only route for us,” Mr. Aquino said at the close of the 15th Asean-Japan Summit, one of the side meetings of the Asean Summit.

He took exception to Hun Sen’s remarks that the Asean countries had agreed to negotiate the West Philippine Sea disputes within an “Asean-China” framework.

National interest

Mr. Aquino interpreted Hun Sen’s statement to mean the exclusion of other international avenues to resolve the territorial rows, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), a Malacanang official told Manila reporters here, explaining what happened during the Asean meeting with Japan.

“As a sovereign state, it is our right to defend our national interest,” Mr. Aquino said during his intervention as Hun Sen was bringing the Asean-Japan summit to a close.

“Hun Sen was about to finish his concluding remarks when President Aquino raised his hand and he made a significant intervention,” Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma told a briefing for Manila reporters at the Landscape Hotel here.

Reading from his notes, he quoted Mr. Aquino as saying, “There were several views expressed yesterday on Asean unity [that] we did not realize [would] be translated [into] an Asean consensus.”

“For the record this was not our understanding. The Asean route is not the only route for us. As a sovereign state, it is our right to defend our national interest,” the President said.

“The chair, Prime Minister Hun Sen, duly acknowledged the intervention, and he said this will be reflected in the record of the meeting,” Coloma said.

Coloma said Mr. Aquino was listening to Hun Sen’s closing message when Hun Sen began wrapping up the proceedings. At one point Hun Sen began to talk about Asean having reached a consensus on  putting discussions within an “Asean-China framework.”

“It was at this point that I noticed the President raised his hand for his intervention,” Coloma recalled.

Inutile accords

Coloma said giving a specific focus on Asean and China would render inutile existing agreements, from the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, a nonbinding document to govern the talks, to the Unclos, on which the Philippines’ territorial claims were mostly based.

“So if the mention of international law or of the UN is already omitted and there is specific focus on simply Asean and China, then that changes the whole context,” he said.

“The President’s statement speaks for itself. It  points out that the statement of the chairman is not consistent with his own recollection or with his own understanding of the context of what has been discussed so far and he stated it plainly and simply.”

But Coloma said the President’s position should not be interpreted as going against the principle of Asean unity.

“To state that there should be Asian-Asean unity does not preclude any country or any member state from asserting its national interest,” he said.

Coloma said the President felt the need to assert the Philippines’ sovereignty as enshrined in the Constitution.

“We are affirming our belief that this matter should be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law, including Unclos. It’s important in a forum to affirm and reaffirm these principles because it involves an issue of sovereignty,” he said.

PH concurrence

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, in a Nov. 18 letter addressed to Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign  Minister Hor Namhong, said the Philippines concurred with the principle of Asean unity.

“It is, nevertheless, the inherent right of every sovereign state to defend its national interest when deemed necessary,” Del Rosario said.

His letter referred to a call by Cambodia for manifestations of Asean unity among the Asean leaders during their retreat on Sunday afternoon.

Coloma said the Philippines was not alone in raising China-related issues at the meetings.

Japan Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda admitted his country’s relation with China was “difficult” at present, but “the two countries are constantly communicating and are determined to maintain peace and stability,” Coloma said.

In the same summit, Vietnam also raised the implementation of the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, the six-point principle, and the early formulation of the code of conduct, Coloma said.

He added that Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung underscored the importance of ensuring freedom of navigation in the West Philippine Sea and the peaceful resolution of the dispute through Unclos.

Monday’s feud echoed the 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 communiqué.

The Philippines and Vietnam had wanted the communiqué to make specific reference to their disputes with China. But Cambodia, the host of the July talks and China’s close ally, blocked the moves.

China, which claims nearly the entire West Philippine Sea, has long resisted discussion of the territorial disputes on international forums, insisting on one-one-one negotiations with its rivals.

Hun Sen raised the proposed talks on the code of conduct with Wen on Sunday night, but China appeared to give no ground.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Qin Gang told reporters after the meeting that China wanted to continue with the current framework of lower-level negotiations that was agreed on a decade ago.

President Aquino raised the Philippines’ concerns over the West Philippine Sea in the meeting between Asean leaders and Wen on Monday, Qin said.

“It was only mentioned in general terms by the Philippines,” he said, insisting that all other countries were only interested in economic issues.

“No other country talked about it. All countries are interested in economic growth, sustainable, balanced development in this region,” he said.

Temperatures could rise again later Monday when Obama joins 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 in the West Philippine Sea. With reports from AP and AFP

Originally posted: 4:42 pm | Monday, November 19th, 2012

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