Asean foreign ministers backed away from approving a Code of Conduct for territorial disputes in the South China Sea, after Chinese objections proved too hot to handle at the Asean Summit meeting in Cambodia. China, which is not a member of the Asean grouping, strongly objected to the multi-lateral approach to the issue.
Cambodia, the host of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting and a close ally of China, failed to take a leadership role in seeking agreement among the 10 participating member countries, a senior diplomat told The New York Times.
“China bought the chair, simple as that,” the diplomat, who requested anonymity, was quoted as saying.
The diplomat pointed to an article on Thursday by China’s state news agency, Xinhua, in which the country’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, was quoted as thanking Cambodia’s prime minister for supporting China’s “core interests,” said the Times.
During the summit, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pushed for a resolution of international territorial disputes to be approached “without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and without use of force,” and within the framework of international laws and treaties. She said all nations had an interest in rights of navigation and peace in the region. Diplomats said the U.S. position had general approval among Asean members.
The South China Sea dispute has led to standoffs between China and the Philippines and Vietnam, who oppose China’s position of dominance in the sea. China claims territorial rights to virtually the whole sea, which is rich in potential gas and oil deposits and a lucrative fishing ground.
Territorial disputes in the South China Sea have increased in the last several months. The latest standoff involved armed vessels belonging to China and to the Philippines at the Scarborough Shoal off the coast of the Philippines. Another dispute centered on a law enacted by Vietnam claiming sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands, which China claims.
The U.S. has taken a position that the sea is one of the world’s most important bodies of water for commerce, and while it takes no side in the disputes, it wants to see the issues peacefully resolved.
Clinton said, “The United States is a resident Pacific power,” which is diplomatic speak intended to mean that the U.S. has interests in the Pacific region and it intends to play a constructive role. Both the U.S. and China stressed that they are cooperating on a host of issues and relations are strong between the two countries.
China has said it wants to solve the South China Sea disputes on a case-by-case basis.
For the past year, the U.S. has been redirecting its diplomatic efforts toward Asia, in an effort to reassert a stronger presence in the region.