PHNOM PENH – President Aquino raised his hand and interrupted a concluding speech of his Cambodian counterpart at their summit here the other day, to clarify that the Philippines disagreed with what was supposed to be a joint regional statement on relations with China.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen acknowledged Aquino’s statement, which effectively meant that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) again failed to reach a consensus on maritime territorial disputes with China.
Hun Sen, in his concluding speech, said that all 10 members of the regional grouping had agreed during their summit last Sunday not to “internationalize” their territorial disputes.
“There were several views expressed yesterday on ASEAN unity, which we did not realize would be translated into an Asean consensus,” President Aquino reportedly countered. “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 interests.”
Last July, ASEAN foreign ministers also failed, for the first time in 45 years, to agree on a joint statement at the end of their annual meeting in Cambodia, the current ASEAN chair. Phnom Penh at the time refused to go along with the inclusion of the overlapping territorial claims in the joint statement.
This time, ASEAN leaders themselves failed to reach a consensus.
The apparent consensus announced by Hun Sen would have been a victory for China, which has long insisted that countries such as the Philippines should not seek support from the United States and should work for bilateral resolution.
Aquino said he and one other country, which diplomats said was Vietnam, had not agreed and that Hun Sen should not have promoted the alleged ASEAN “consensus.”
“While the Philippines was for ASEAN unity, it has the inherent right to defend its national interests when deemed necessary,” Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters, quoting Aquino’s comments to his fellow leaders yesterday.
Del Rosario said the Philippine delegation sent a letter to all other ASEAN leaders to emphasize that there was no consensus.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, after meeting the ASEAN leaders, warned that a row over the South China Sea and West Philippine Sea could directly influence “peace and stability” in Asia.
Wading into one of Asia’s most divisive and vexing security problems, Japan challenged efforts by summit host Cambodia to limit discussions on the maritime dispute.
“Prime Minister Noda raised the issue of the South China Sea, noting that this is of common concern for the international community, which would have direct impact on peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific,” a Japanese government statement said after Noda’s meeting with ASEAN leaders.
Other ASEAN members Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan, have claims to parts of the sea, which is home to some of the world’s most important shipping lanes and believed to be rich in fossil fuels. But China insists it has sovereign rights to virtually all of South China Sea and West Philippine Sea.
Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Sonny Coloma, who attended the ASEAN-Japan summit here, briefed reporters on what happened at the summit.
The Cambodian leader, according to Coloma, “duly acknowledged the statement of President Aquino and he said that this will be reflected in the records of the meeting.”
In a briefing held at Landscape Hotel here, Coloma noted that Aquino made his sentiments known when Hun Sen mentioned the “ASEAN-China framework.”
“It was at this point that I noticed the President raise his hand to make the intervention. So that is the context of what happened,” Coloma said. “That is not an accurate representation of the Philippine position. That is not 10 out of 10.”
Coloma said Aquino was not changing his multilateral tack in dealing with ASEAN members, but that he also wanted to relay his message that territorial issues also fall within international laws.
“He wants this to be treated not only as an ASEAN issue. There should be ASEAN centrality plus the UN and the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). That is the bigger picture,” he told The STAR.
Coloma recounted that Hun Sen was talking about pressing concerns in the Korean Peninsula during his concluding remarks, particularly on the need to ease the tensions as well as for self-restraint and the preeminence of the UN charter and international law.
“He was referring to the tensions in one part of the region. Then he went on to discuss the South China Sea. He said that the member states, the countries of ASEAN and other countries, must exercise utmost restraint and use the means of peaceful dialogue,” Coloma said.
The Cambodian leader then pointed out that ASEAN may always look for direction from the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC), which was promulgated in 2002.
Aquino made the same pitch when he attended yesterday’s ASEAN+3 summit with Japan, South Korea and China, during which he declared the Philippines’ position on the territorial row.
In his speech, Aquino told Hun Sen that “among the principles that the ASEAN community has pledged to abide by is that of centrality.”
“It should also be foremost in our minds as we address concerns in the East Asian maritime region. Prevailing tensions in the area stand to impact regional peace and stability,” Aquino stressed.
“As we are bound by shared aspirations, so too are we bound by shared responsibilities; the challenges that we shirk from today will be the ones that plague us tomorrow,” Aquino asserted.
“We reiterate our call on all parties concerned to avoid the threat or use of force, and to adhere to universally recognized principles of international law in settling disputes, particularly those under the 1982 UNCLOS, because respect for the rule of law remains the great equalizer in the relations among nations,” he added.
“Conversely, in the absence of clear rules for everyone to follow, tensions do not subside but only remain dormant; lasting resolutions remain elusive; respect becomes subject to whim and discretion, rather than an imperative that should be granted to, and extended by, all members of the community of nations,” Aquino pointed out.
“It is my hope that, in the coming years, we will look back on today and see a time when the ASEAN community came together and unlocked its full potential – a time when, shoulder-to-shoulder, we took our first steps towards a unified Southeast Asia that, in recognizing its singular destiny, fully harnesses the energies borne of its diversity,” he said.
Tensions have risen steadily over the past two years, with the Philippines and Vietnam accusing China of increasingly aggressive tactics to stake its claims. Tensions could rise further on US President Barack Obama’s arrival to join the East Asia Summit.
Obama had 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 over the sea.
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