PHNOM PENH/JAKARTA (Reuters) - Southeast Asian states sought to save face on Friday with a call for restraint and dialogue over the South China Sea, but made no progress in healing a deep divide about how to respond to China’s growing assertiveness in the disputed waters.
After heated discussions at a summit last week that saw its customary communique aborted for the first time in its 45-year history, the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN)issued a six-point statement that omitted the contentious issues that had its 10 members locked in a bitter dispute for days.
ASEAN chair Cambodia, which was accused by several members of stonewalling in support of key ally China, on Friday blamed “two countries” for scuttling the communique by refusing to agree to the six points it had initially proposed.
“Cambodia is not at fault at all,” Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told a news conference.
“Why the Foreign Ministers meeting was unable to issue a joint communique on these six points which were all raised by me? Why did two countries keep opposing? Probably, there was a plan behind the scenes against Cambodia.”
His comments risk widening cracks that have appeared in a grouping that is becoming polarized by China’s rapidly expanding influence. China wanted to keep the maritime dispute off the agenda, putting members dependent on it for loans and investment - Cambodia among them - in a tight squeeze.
The divisions follow a rise in incidents of naval brinkmanship involving Chinese vessels in the oil-rich waters that has sparked fears of a military clash.
China has territorial claims over a huge area covering waters that Vietnam and the Philippines say they also have sovereignty over. All three countries are eager to tap possibly huge offshore oil reserves.
China’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday it “noted” ASEAN’s position on the South China Sea issue, but added China had a “full historic and legal basis” to its territorial claims.
“China and ASEAN have joint interests and responsibilities when it comes to maintaining regional peace and stability and the impetus of Asian development,” spokesman Hong Lei said in a statement on the ministry’s website (www.mfa.gov.cn).
Vietnam and the Philippines have sharply criticized China and last month ramped up their rhetoric following agreements to strengthen their military ties with the United States.
“POURING GASOLINE ON FIRE”
The failure to issue the communique and the bitter rows behind closed doors over what words and names to use and what details to exclude were a huge embarrassment for a 10-member bloc planning to form an EU-style economic community by 2015.
In Friday’s statement, ASEAN made no reference to specific incidents but agreed to draft and implement a regional code of conduct, respect international law and exercise self-restraint.
“We have not issued a joint communique because there was no consensus ...one week later, we have a document to express the stance of ASEAN over the South China Sea,” Hor Namhong said.
He defended the decision to omit recent disputes from the text, which he said would have been like “pouring gasoline onto a burning fire”.
“It would not be a solution ... on the contrary, this would complicate talks in the future. There are no other choices, or a war that no parties want.”
Cambodia’s comments contrasted with the positive gloss applied by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who on Friday said ASEAN had reached a “common position”, even though there was no communique.
Natalegawa, who emerged as the group’s de facto troubleshooter after intervening on ASEAN’s behalf to try to halt deadly Thai-Cambodia border clashes last year, spent two days shuttling between member countries to try to strike an agreement. He said ASEAN had learned lessons from the debacle.
“You can only have an ASEAN that is central in the region if ASEAN itself is united and cohesive. Last week we were tested, there have been some difficulties but we have grown the wiser from it,” he told Reuters.
“Indonesia took the initiative to recalibrate ASEAN through the 36-hour effort, shuttle diplomacy, visits and working the phones and we can now reach a common position again.”
Natalegawa said the communique was aborted during the summit because one of the four paragraphs relating to the South China Sea in the 132-paragraph draft could not be agreed on.
Despite stark differences on some of the more contentious issues, such as how to deal with its once rogue member, Myanmar, ASEAN had always managed to at least appear to be unified by delivering a communique at the end of its summits.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Alex Richardson and Ed Lane