By Prak Chan , Reuters
PHNOM PENH–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. 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.