Regional leaders at a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have again raised disagreements over the South China Sea.
ASEAN leaders have sought to maintain a unified public presence preparing for this summit, following divisive ministerial meetings in July.
They had largely avoided bickering publicly through the media, until a statement late Sunday from ASEAN chair, Cambodia.
“The ASEAN leaders decided that they will not internationalize the South China Sea from now on," Cambodian foreign ministry official Kao Kim Hourn told reporters. "That they will focus this entirely within the current existing ASEAN-China mechanisms, which is at the level of the senior officials’, ministerial, and the leaders where they will continue to engage discussions on the South China Sea.”
By Monday, the Philippines had objected. Its delegation released a short statement saying it wished to maintain its “inherent right to defend its national interest when deemed necessary.” The Philippines was quick to add that it too is concerned about maintaining ASEAN unity.
But the incident was a reminder of July, when Cambodia was accused of backing China in the long-running maritime dispute by refusing Philippine demands to mention a set of disputed islands in a final official statement.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia, claim parts of the South China Sea, but it is the vast claims from regional power China, that has caused disagreements within ASEAN.
China is interested in negotiating a solution to the disputes with individual countries rather than the bloc. Any ASEAN consensus to not internationalize the issue, then, could be seen as playing into China's hands.
But there still remains a wide gap between ASEAN and China when it comes to beginning negotiations. ASEAN decided this week to push forward on a long-awaited Code of Conduct for involved parties. But China appears reluctant.
Qin Gang, a Chinese government spokesman, said, "It takes some time for, you know, for China and ASEAN to talk about, discuss [Code of Conduct] and this is not a wasting of time because during the discussion we can build up and accumulate more consensus and mutual trust to find more better ways to keep this region peaceful and stable.”
Either way, it appears likely the issue will be raised on an international stage as soon as Tuesday, during the East Asia Summit, a forum that includes countries beyond ASEAN's boundaries.