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Storm over South China Sea

Publication Date : 18-07-2012


Cambodia has been heavily criticised for failing to issue a joint statement as chairman of last week's annual meeting of Asean foreign ministers. Critics have noted that it was the first time in 45 years that no statement was issued, raising questions over Cambodia's current chairmanship of Asean and the future the association itself.

Before the Asean ministers met, senior officials of the 10 countries drafted a code of conduct for the South China Sea. Elements of the draft were shown to China, which has overlapping territorial claims in the sea with Asean members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

As the ministers met, heated debates took place over the wording of the joint statement. Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong blamed inappropriate language during the meeting, with the Philippines mentioning the disputed Scarborough Shoal and Vietnam referring to its exclusive economic zone.

Tensions spilled over out of the meeting room into lunches and dinners, reflecting poorly on Cambodia's chairmanship. Ministers duly expressed their disappointment, triggering an onslaught of negative coverage by the international media.

Some analysts said Cambodia was acting in its own interests as it wanted to avoid offending leading donor China. According to Hor Namong, however, Cambodia was merely being neutral. "Cambodia does not support one country and walk over another," he said.

"Cambodia is not a judge. I told my colleagues that Cambodia may be chairing the meeting of Asean foreign ministers but it is not acting as judge to decide  winners and losers, whose islands and whose sea," he added.

The Philippines, the loudest critic, should stop pointing its finger at Cambodia for failing to muster Asean forces to defend Philippine interests against those of China. When Cambodia appealed for Asean's intervention in its border dispute with Thailand, its bigger and more powerful neighbor, the two countries were told to solve the problem themselves. Few Asean  members wanted to risk jeopardising their relations with Thailand.



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