ASEAN Ministers Meeting Cambodia
Cartoon by Roni Santiago

It is deeply disturbing, to say the least.

We are referring to the failure of the recent ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) ministers meeting to hammer out a joint communiqué on pressing issues, including the territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario was disappointed over the disagreement that caused the failure of the ASEAN foreign ministers to come out with a joint statement at the end of the meeting, which was held in Cambodia.

This was the first time in the history of ASEAN that the ministers failed to issue a statement that would have summed up the positions of the member-nations on issues affecting the region.

Reports indicated that Cambodia, which chaired the meeting, consistently objected to a move to mention in the communiqué the Philippine-China territorial conflict. Cambodia is said to be a known ally of China.

Speaking to reporters in Manila, Del Rosario said the territorial row in the South China Sea “is not a mere bilateral conflict with a northern neighbor but a multilateral one and should, therefore, be resolved in a multilateral manner.”

“The Philippines declares that the ASEAN consensus reached during the senior officials meeting last June on the elements of a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea already clearly underscores the fact that ASEAN is pursuing the resolution of the dispute in a multilateral manner,” Del Rosario said.

“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 stressed.

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We believe that Del Rosario’s disappointment over the failure of ASEAN to issue a joint communiqué is understandable.

The ASEAN has put up an image as a monolithic bloc whose paramount concern is the promotion of the best interests of the member-countries.

The disagreement in Phnom Penh indicated, however, that there is discord and disunity. This is disturbing to at least the Philippines because it has always looked up to ASEAN as a body that it can rely on in the event of an exigency.

Cambodia’s opposition to the Philippine stand on the Scarborough Shoal row indicates that Phnom Penh is supporting China’s position – which is to resolve the conflict in a bilateral manner.

The Philippines has long maintained that the dispute should be resolved multilaterally.

In bilateral negotiations, the Philippines is at the losing end as China would like to tackle the issue under its own rules.

There is an obvious trickery in this scheme: It is loading the dice in favor of China. Cambodia seems to be impervious to this chicanery.