| PHNOM PENH
PHNOM PENH Nov 19 Japan warned on Monday that a
row over the South China Sea could directly influence "peace and
stability" in Asia as the Philippines publicly disagreed with
Cambodia over the contentious territorial issue at a regional
Wading into one of Asia's most divisive and vexing security
problems, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda challenged
efforts by summit host Cambodia to limit discussions on the
South China Sea, where China's territorial claims overlap 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 Association of Southeast
Asian Nations (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 internationalise the
South China Sea from now on."
In a sign of tensions within Southeast Asia over Chinese
sovreignty claims, Philippine President Benigno Aquino disputed
the Cambodian statement and said no such agreement had been
reached, voicing his objections in tense final minutes of
discussions between Noda and Southeast Asian leaders.
As Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen began to conclude the
meeting, Aquino abruptly raised his hand and tersely
"There were several views expressed yesterday on ASEAN unity
which we did not realise 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."
Alternative diplomatic routes for the Philippines would
likely involve the United States, a close ally. Cambodia, on the
other hand, has deep ties with China.
U.S. President Barack Obama will meet Southeast Asian
leaders on Monday evening before sitting down with Chinese
Premier Wen Jiabao on Tuesday. He is widely expected to raise
the issue of South China Sea tensions.
China has repeatedly sought to reject involvement by nations
outside Southeast Asia at a sensitive time, as Washington seeks
an expanded military and diplomatic presence in the region under
a so-called "pivot" from conflicts in the Middle East and
Afghanistan announced last year.
China's assertion of sovereignty over the stretch of water
off its south coast and to the east of mainland Southeast Asia
has set it directly against U.S. allies Vietnam and the
Philippines, while Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also lay claim to
parts, making it Asia's biggest potential military trouble spot.
U.S. MILITARY PRESENCE
The Philippines, Australia and other parts of the region
have seen a resurgence of U.S. warships, planes and personnel
since Obama began shifting foreign, economic and security policy
towards Asia late last year.
Cambodia has used its powers as ASEAN chair this year to
limit discussion on the South China Sea, in line with Beijing's
view the disputes should be discussed on a bilateral basis.
Kao of the Cambodian foreign ministry said on Sunday the
ASEAN bloc had agreed to confine talks on a set of rules for
operating in the South China Sea to its meetings with China.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario, however,
told reporters that Vietnam shared the Philippines' objections
to that Cambodian statement. Vietnam officials were not
immediately available to confirm that.
The tensions illustrate the difficulty of forging a
Southeast Asian consensus over how to deal with an increasingly
assertive China. Southeast Asia had hoped avoid a repeat of an
embarrassing breakdown of talks in July over competing claims in
the mineral-rich waters, its biggest security challenge.
Washington insists its "pivot" is not about containing China
or a permanent return to military bases of the past, but it has
increased its military presence in the Philippines and other
areas near vital sea lanes and border disputes in the South
China Sea that have raised tensions with China.
Cambodian Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said Hun Sen
had discussed the issue with China's Wen on Sunday evening but
did not provide details. However, he said "China wants a