Cambodia Staves Off Criticism

Prime Minister Hun Sen says his country is not taking sides in the South China Sea dispute.

asean-southchinasea-305.gif China's territorial claim to the South China Sea includes two disputed island chains.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has defended Cambodia from criticism over its chairing of a Southeast Asian ministerial meeting which led to an unprecedented delay in the adoption of a joint statement over the region's dispute with Beijing on overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Some diplomats from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had charged that Cambodia had been influenced by its giant ally China not to incorporate the views of ASEAN member states the Philippines and Vietnam in the statement, causing an impasse at the meeting last week.

Endless arguments over the text on the South China Sea dispute prevented the ASEAN foreign ministers from issuing their customary joint statement for the first time in the 10-member bloc's 45-year history at the conclusion of their meeting in Phnom Penh on July 13.

In a face-saving move, Cambodia announced Friday that the Southeast Asian states had finally emerged with a statement calling for restraint and dialogue over the South China Sea and vowed to work towards a "code of conduct" governing nations with overlapping territorial claims in the vast sea.

The ministers had agreed on six principles, including a commitment to respect international laws and the non-use of force to settle disputes on the sea, where tensions have flared recently with Vietnam and the Philippines accusing Beijing of increasingly aggressive behavior, officials said.

The Cambodian cabinet issued a statement after the ASEAN understanding reached Friday, quoting Hun Sen as saying that that the six principles were in fact initiated by Cambodia.

“The six-point principles are a Cambodia success as the ASEAN chair,” Hun Sen said.

“Cambodia is responsible as the ASEAN chair. Cambodia is working to resolve any differences about the South China Sea dispute and to bring about unity to resolve the dispute with China based on ASEAN and China policy.

"This is showing the world our independence and ability to protect ASEAN interests," Hun Sen said.

Key issue

The six-point statement however did not include the key issue that had caused the impasse at the ASEAN talks—a call by the Philippines and Vietnam for the inclusion of  a specific reference to Beijing's alleged encroachment in their respective exclusive economic zones and continental shelves.

Beijing claims sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea, but ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei have overlapping claims in the area, which is believed to contain vast oil and gas reserves.

A standoff at the Scarborough Shoal, a horseshoe-shaped reef in waters that both China and the Philippines claim, began earlier this year when Manila accused Chinese fishermen of poaching in its exclusive economic zone, including the shoal.

Both sides had sent government ships to the area.

Vietnam has faced its own problems with China, mostly resulting from Beijing's detention of Vietnamese fishermen in disputed waters.

Hanoi has also protested a recent announcement by the state Chinese oil company opening nine oil and gas lots for international bidders in areas overlapping with existing Vietnamese exploration blocks.

Reported by Sok Serey for RFA's Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.

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