Japan warned yesterday that a row over the South China Sea could damage “peace and stability” in Asia as China stalled on a plan to ease tensions and disagreements flared between the Philippines and Cambodia over the dispute.
The acrimony provided an uneasy backdrop to US President Barack Obama’s arrival in Cambodia for a regional summit where he was expected to urge China and Southeast Asian nations to resolve the row, one of Asia’s biggest security issues.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda challenged efforts by summit host Cambodia, a staunch China ally, to limit discussions on the mineral-rich sea, where China’s territorial claims overlap with those of four Southeast Asian countries and of Taiwan.
“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 met leaders from the 10-member ASEAN.
That followed a statement on Sunday from Kao Kim Hourn, a Cambodian foreign ministry official, who said Southeast Asian leaders “had decided that they will not internationalize the South China Sea from now on.”
In a sign of tension, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III disputed the Cambodian statement and said no such agreement was reached, voicing his objections in the tense final minutes of discussions between Noda and Southeast Asian leaders.
As Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen began to conclude the meeting with Noda, Aquino abruptly raised his hand and tersely interjected.
“There were several views expressed yesterday on ASEAN unity which we did not realize would be translated into an ASEAN consensus,” he said, according to his spokesman.
“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,” Aquino said.
Alternative diplomatic routes for the Philippines would likely involve the US, one of its closest allies, which has said it has a national interest in freedom of navigation through the South China Sea’s vital shipping lanes.
ASEAN on Sunday agreed to formally ask China to start talks on a Code of Conduct (CoC) aimed at easing the risk of naval flashpoints, according to ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan.
However, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) appeared to play down the need for urgent action in talks on Sunday night with Hun Sen.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang (秦剛) said he could “not recall” Hun Sen making a formal request for talks.
“It takes some time for China and ASEAN to discuss the CoC,” he said.
He repeated Cambodia’s statement that ASEAN had reached a “common position” not to internationalize the issue, directly contradicting Aquino.