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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Asean mum on South China Sea ruling, claims diplomats

South-east Asia will not issue a statement on the rejection of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea by an international tribunal, said regional diplomats today, blaming the no-comment on pressure by Beijing.

The Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) had weighed whether to speak out on Tuesday’s ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, said South-east Asian diplomats with knowledge of the matter.

But 10-member Asean, whose unity has increasingly come under strain in the shadow of Beijing’s expanding presence in the South China Sea, could not find common ground on the highly sensitive issue involving its massive and powerful neighbour, they said.

“Asean officials had prepared a draft text but there was no agreement to release a joint statement,” said a South-east Asian diplomat, adding that China was believed to have leaned on its Asean allies Laos and Cambodia to scuttle any statement.

“Some Asean countries are definitely not happy. Beijing’s action can be seen as interference in Asean’s centrality,” the source said.

Another senior South-east Asian diplomat said China has “succeeded in splitting Asean through its allies on the South China Sea issue”, referring to Laos and Cambodia.

Chinese pressure was blamed last month for a startling diplomatic U-turn by Asean, which swiftly disowned a joint statement released by Malaysia after an Asean-China meeting.

That statement had expressed alarm over Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea and the fiasco highlighted the bloc’s inability to maintain a united front against Chinese expansionism.

China claims nearly all of the highly strategic sea — home to some of the world’s most important shipping routes — and has steadily strengthened its toehold by converting reefs and sandbars into islands.

Manila brought an international arbitration case against China over its expanding presence, resulting in this week’s thorough rejection of Beijing’s claims by the Hague tribunal, which said they had no legal basis.

China has in turn rejected the ruling and reiterated its stand.

Asean members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan, have competing claims to parts of the resource-rich sea.

While the Philippines and Vietnam have been particularly critical of China, Laos and Cambodia have been generally regarded as preferring to side with their giant neighbour and benefactor.

Laos holds Asean’s chair this year.

Cambodia had said even before the tribunal ruling that it would take no part in any joint Asean comment, effectively ruling out a statement since the bloc doesn’t speak without full consensus. — AFP

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