By Puy Kea
VIENTIANE, July 28, Kyodo — Cambodia, the youngest member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has been portrayed as a "thorn" in the side of the regional bloc as far as the sensitive and long-standing South China Sea disputes are concerned.
The label has been widely used this week by media reporting from Vientiane, the capital of Laos, where foreign ministers from ASEAN's 10 member states are holding their regional annual meetings, alongside talks with nearly 20 other dialogue partners including China, Japan, North Korea, the United States and Russia.
A series of meetings of vice foreign ministers, and later their ministers, attempting to finalize an ASEAN Joint Communique touching on the South China Sea issue did not reach a consensus until their deadline passed.
When information on the talks was leaked to the media, a portion of the blame was firmly put on Cambodia for having "blocked" the move. News suggested that one ambassador-at-large had suggested Cambodia's expulsion from ASEAN.
While Cambodia is not a party to the South China Sea disputes, it has its own issues with geopolitics, economy, external factors and its own territorial disputes with neighboring Thailand.
When reached for an explanation by Cambodia on her hardline position, an official who assigned to ASEAN-related meetings in Laos said any blame put on Cambodia is "annoying" because the fire had not started from Cambodia but from the claimant states and the external ones who are disputing or unhappy with China.
"They should understand and be thankful to Cambodia that, because of Cambodia's role and position, (they are) making China happy with ASEAN by offering new and fresh pledges with four positive points, including a particular commitment to conclude the Code of Conduct framework by middle of next year," the official said.
He added that Cambodia's position on the South China Sea issue is merely to secure the full implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that was signed in Cambodia in 2002, and that Cambodia never wants to see such historical commitment be "destroyed" or "scrapped."
The official went further by saying that it was not Cambodia which blocked the issuance of a Joint Communique, but that the specific wording demanded by the Philippines and Vietnam were "too straight" and that was not "conducive" for China and ASEAN to move forward with full implementation of the DOC towards the COC.
The wording, such as the mentioning of a recent court arbitration ruling in favor of the Philippines in particular, and the larger picture of the South China Sea issue has made ASEAN split in their political points of view, and barbs were traded between stakeholders, especially the Philippines and China.
Speaking during an ASEAN-China bilateral meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is "not an issue here. It cannot define our relations."
"We cannot allow any attempt to intervene in our affairs here because it will destabilize the region. This is our home," he said, emphasizing that "China is very much part of ASEAN."
He said that when the Philippines initiated the arbitration hearing, there was "a setback in our relations."
Arguing against China's rhetoric, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay said, "China must understand that we went to arbitration because it was the only way for small countries like the Philippines to invoke the rule of law on the South China Sea issue."
ASEAN sources said "ASEAN is divided and is bullied by two supreme powers, the United States and China, and that is making particular countries choose their own allies or closer friends."
They said there are four countries which are favoring China while the other six side with the United States, a split which was not only seen on paper and heard through their arguments during discussions but even in their stays in Laos.
The delegations from the Philippines,
Malaysia and Indonesia are staying at the same hotel as the U.S. party, while those from Cambodia, Brunei, Myanmar and North Korea are staying in the same facility as China.
One ASEAN diplomat said that, over the past few days, Cambodia's position had been clear, taking a lead in disputing any wording in a Joint Communique that linked to the July 12 arbitration ruling.
The Philippines and Vietnam attempted to insert the arbitration clause or alternative terms such as "legal and diplomatic processes" in the Joint Communique, and that was supported by Singapore and Malaysia, while Aung San Suu Kyi, representing Myanmar, was trying to balance the statement, but had stronger preference to the United States than China, according to ASEAN sources.
In response to inquiries as to why Cambodia is taking a firm position in dealing with the South China Sea issue, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is the sole decision maker for all of Cambodia's foreign policy, made a statement on June 20, less than a month ahead of the ASEAN meetings in Laos, explaining the reasons.
He said Cambodia's stance had three points: to continue to fully implement the DOC, to make efforts so that ASEAN and China achieve the COC, and for concerned parties to discuss and resolve their conflicts.
"The South China Sea is not an issue between ASEAN and China. They are matters for countries who claim sovereignty. Cambodia sticks to its clear role to make thing calm, contain conflict between ASEAN countries and China. Cambodia is maintaining ASEAN-China relations for common interest," he said.
Hun Sen went further by recalling that when Cambodia had border problems with Thailand in 2008 to 2011, over which it took a case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Cambodia did not ask ASEAN to support that court's decision.
He denied that Cambodia is anyone's puppet.
An ASEAN diplomat said the association is binding, with three pillars: socio-cultural; economic; and political and security, the last of which, he said, is unlikely to be fully integrated among 10 member states which vary in their populations, culture, religions, economy and foreign policy.
"It is widely expected that ASEAN can move forward with two of the three pillars, but not on political and security, which is life and death for their respective regimes," the diplomat added.
While the South China Sea dispute topped the agenda during the past few days of meetings in Laos, and while Cambodia was widely slated for its actions, ASEAN finally reached a consensus.
However, many are now feeling that tensions between certain ASEAN countries and China will be worse when the Philippines takes the role of chair of the association next year.
ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.