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MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines criticized on Friday the failure of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to issue a joint statement after the annual high-level foreign ministerial meetings in Cambodia, blaming the host country for opposing any mention of the Bajo de Masinloc territorial disputes involving China.
ASEAN’s failure to come up with the joint communiqué following the meetings in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh is unprecedented in the 10-member bloc’s 45-year history.
The embarrassing incident brought out into the open days of closed-door infighting among ASEAN member countries on how to deal with the long-raging West Philippine Sea or South China Sea territorial disputes involving four ASEAN members -- the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei -- along with China and Taiwan.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said he raised the Bajo de Masinloc conflict in the ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting last Monday and had wanted the discussions to be mentioned in the joint communiqué, but Cambodia continuously rejected any mention of the shoal dispute in any of the grouping’s statements.
Bajo de Masinloc, a group of rocky outcrops encircling a lagoon, is also known as Scarborough Shoal, which is located off northwestern Philippines and well within its territory but is being claimed by China.
Cambodia, a known Chinese ally, is holding this year the rotating chairmanship of the ASEAN, which also includes Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore, and Thailand.
“The Chair has consistently opposed any mention of the Scarborough Shoal at all in the Joint Communiqué and today announced that a Joint Communiqué ‘cannot be issued,’” Del Rosario told a press conference in Manila.
The Joint Communique, which contains the group’s advocacies and plans, is traditionally issued at the end of the ASEAN’s annual summits.
Del Rosario emphasized that since the conflicting claims in the West Philippine Sea, also referred to as South China Sea, involve four of ASEAN’s members, “this dispute is not a mere bilateral conflict with a northern neighbor but a multilateral one and should therefore be resolved in a multilateral manner.”
After flying back to Manila, Del Rosario repeated in the news conference the Philippine government’s firm position, but added he does not see the differences would lead to a “break up” of ASEAN.
“I don’t think we should even think that this is the beginning of the tear in the organization,” he said. “I think it just presents a bigger challenge for us to continue to build on what we stand for – leadership, centrality and solidarity.”
Despite the disagreement in Cambodia, Del Rosario said progress was made when ASEAN senior diplomats finalized key elements that they want to see in a proposed “code of conduct” aimed at preventing the territorial disputes with China from degenerating into armed confrontation.
He believes the friction within ASEAN will not hamper the organization’s negotiations with China for a binding code of conduct in the West Philippine Sea.
“I don’t think that has an adverse effect. I think all of us are looking forward to discussion on those fundamental elements and we’re looking forward to an early beginning of those consultations,” he said.
With the approval of the major elements, ASEAN would now have to negotiate with China to finalize what is hoped to be a legally binding non-aggression agreement on the West Philippine Sea.
China claims nearly in its entirety the South China Sea, which is dotted by clusters of islands, cays, shoals and reefs and teem with rich fishing areas. The vast sea is also believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits and is regarded as among the world’s most strategic and busiest waterways.
ASEAN has been criticized for failing to take stronger and rapid steps to ease the territorial conflicts. The Philippines has urged the bloc to speak up after Filipino vessels figured in a dangerous standoff with Chinese ships at the shoal last April 10.
But the dispute at the shoal dragged on for months without ASEAN collectively issuing any statement.
In a special meeting on the draft statement on Monday, Del Rosario said several ASEAN member-states, which he declined to name, and the ASEAN Secretariat supported the Philippines position that the standoff between Manila and Beijing at the shoal “should be reflected in the Joint Communiqué.”
Del Rosario, who led the Philippine delegation in Phnom Penh, told fellow ASEAN ministers “that the current situation in the West Philippine Sea deserves urgent attention from ASEAN because it has direct impact on unimpeded commerce and shipping in the region."
He said the territorial conflicts should be resolved through a United Nations maritime treaty signed by the Philippines, China and 162 other governments for any solution to gain international recognition and respect.
“If Philippine sovereignty and jurisdiction can be denigrated by a powerful country through pressure, duplicity, intimidation, the threat of use of force and economic pressure, the international community should be concerned about the behavior of this member-state which has negative implications to the overall peace and stability and freedom of navigation in the West Philippine Sea,” Del Rosario said, referring to China.
If left unchecked, Del Rosario warned the increasing tensions as a result of what he called China’s “creeping imposition of its claim” over the entire sea, “could further escalate into physical hostilities which no one wants.”
“This puts in greater jeopardy the remarkable economic dynamism of our region which was made possible by the relative peace and stability that prevailed in the past years,” Del Rosario said.