Published — Tuesday 20 November 2012
Last update 20 November 2012 2:43 am
PHNOM PENH: Asian leaders feuded yesterday over how to handle tense maritime territorial disputes with China, overshadowing talks at a regional summit meant to strengthen trade and political ties.
The leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations had hoped to present a united front on the South China Sea row as they hosted Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and US President Barack Obama for annual talks.
But that effort broke down just before the ASEAN leaders met Wen, amid divisions between Chinese ally Cambodia and the Philippines.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda also weighed into the debate at the 18-nation East Asia Summit, warning the South China Sea was of concern to the international community and could impact “peace and stability” in the region.
Cambodia, this year’s ASEAN chair and host of the summit, said on Sunday that Southeast Asian leaders had agreed not to “internationalize” the disputes and would confine negotiations to those between the bloc and China.
The apparent deal would have been a victory for China, which has long insisted that it should only negotiate directly with rival claimants to the sea.
The Philippines has consistently sought wider help, such as from close ally the United States, in dealing with its more powerful Asian neighbor on the issue.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino yesterday publicly rebuked Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, saying no such consensus had been reached and he would continue to speak out on the global stage.
“The Philippines... has the inherent right to defend its national interests when deemed necessary,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters, quoting Aquino’s comments to his fellow leaders.
The feud echoed unprecedented infighting at an ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh in July, which ended for the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history without a joint communiqué.
The Philippines and Vietnam had wanted the communiqué to make specific reference to their disputes with China. But Cambodia blocked the moves.
ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan, have claims to parts of the sea, which is home to some of the world’s most important shipping lanes and believed to be rich in fossil fuels.
But China insists it has sovereign rights to virtually all of the sea.
Tensions have increased steadily over the past two years, with the Philippines and Vietnam accusing China of increasingly aggressive diplomatic tactics to stake its claims.
Temperatures could rise again today, the final day of the East Asia Summit, with Obama expected to raise his concerns over the rows.
Obama has previously angered China, and emboldened the Philippines, by calling for the rival claimants to agree on a legally binding code of conduct to govern their actions over the sea.
Analysts said he would likely repeat that call in Phnom Penh, as well as make comments highlighting the importance of freedom of navigation in the sea.
Obama’s trip to Phnom Penh, which followed a historic visit to Myanmar to reward political reforms there, began on a tense note with the US president voicing concern to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen over his rights record.
But countries involved in the East Asia Summit were still expected to focus on ways to expand economic ties.
ASEAN nations are set to officially launch negotiations today for an enormous free trade pact with China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
And despite their own territorial rows, China, Japan and South Korea are likely to hold talks in Phnom Penh today aimed at kick-starting three-way free trade negotiations.
Obama told Cambodia’s premier in a “tense” meeting yesterday that his government’s human rights violations were “an impediment” to better bilateral ties, a US official said.
Newly re-elected Obama met Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen for talks in Phnom Penh ahead of joining an East Asia Summit.
Obama brought up the need for fair and free elections in Cambodia, and the need for the release of political prisoners, Rhodes added, agreeing that the meeting was “tense.”
“He said that those types of issues are an impediment to the United States and Cambodia developing a deeper bilateral relationship.” Obama, the first US president to visit Cambodia, and Hun Sen shook hands before their meeting but the American did not smile during the greeting.
The Cambodian government has faced mounting criticism from rights groups in recent years for what they claim is a growing crackdown on dissidents and protesters in cases that are often linked to land disputes.
During the talks, Rhodes said Obama highlighted the case of prominent government critic and radio station owner Mam Sonando, 71, who was jailed for 20 years in October for an alleged secessionist plot in a verdict that dismayed rights groups.