Cambodia says ASEAN should stay out of South China Sea fracas

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia threw its support on Thursday behind China’s position on settling South China Sea disputes, arguing that territorial conflicts should be tackled between claimants and not involve the regional ASEAN grouping.

In a rare foray by a non-claimant state into the most sensitive issue facing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Cambodia conveyed its message during a meeting it called with diplomats from 28 countries.

“Territorial claims in the South China Sea must be settled with countries involved,” its Foreign Affairs Secretary of State Soeung Rathchavy told reporters after the closed-doors meeting.

“ASEAN can’t settle this dispute. We are not a legal institution, it’s the court that settles who’s right and wrong.”

China claims 90 percent of the strategic waters and has long said ASEAN is not a party to the dispute and rows should be addressed bilaterally. Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia have competing claims.

The holding of the meeting was Cambodia’s most overt move on the issue since a bitter row over the wording of a paragraph on maritime tensions in a draft communique at a summit in 2012.

Cambodia, which held the rotating ASEAN chairmanship at the time, was accused of driving a wedge through the 10-member bloc when its refusal to be drawn on China’s actions in the South China Sea resulted in the customary end-of-summit communique not being issued for the first time since the grouping’s inception in 1967.

China provides substantial economic and military support to Cambodia, its closest ally in Southeast Asia, but denies influencing its actions within ASEAN. Some commentators say China has the power to use Cambodia as a veto in the consensus-led grouping.

Chinese reclamation work in the South China Sea dominated ASEAN’s latest summit in Malaysia last week, when the communique noted such activity had “eroded trust and confidence”, though it did not name China.

All claimants routinely call for cooperation in drafting a binding code of conduct, an idea stemming from a ASEAN-China agreement made 13 years ago.

Soeung Rathchavy insisted Cambodia had not been influenced by China.

“We are neutral, China is not just a close friend with Cambodia but also with other countries which have made noises,” she said, without naming them.

Editing by Martin Petty and Alex Richardson