Once again, Cambodia has tried to pull a fast one on the Philippines and other Asean countries involved in territorial disputes with China. Last Sunday, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, host of this year’s Asean summits, declared that the regional bloc had reached a consensus: Negotiations regarding territorial claims in parts of the South China Sea (the West Philippine Sea to Manila, the East Sea to Hanoi) would be held within an “Asean-China” framework.
In fact, there was no such consensus, and President Aquino acted in the Philippines’ best interests when he reminded his Cambodian counterpart of that fact, in another conference that followed on Monday.
“There were several views expressed yesterday on Asean unity [that] we did not realize [would] be translated [into] an Asean consensus,” Secretary Herminio Coloma quoted Mr. Aquino as saying.
Coloma’s own gloss on the President’s remarks is helpful in drawing the context: “The President’s statement speaks for itself. It points out that the statement of the chairman is not consistent with his own recollection or with his own understanding of the context of what has been discussed so far, and he stated it plainly and simply.”
To be sure, the Asean leaders did agree on one significant point. They asked China to begin negotiations with Asean “as soon as possible” on the so-called code of conduct that would govern competing maritime claims in the area; China had agreed to the use of such a code 10 long years ago.
But on the matter of an exclusive Asean framework for the resolution of the territorial disputes, Hun Sen saw unity where in fact there was none.
We wish to be clear: We have long advocated that the territorial claims involving the Kalayaan Islands be resolved in part through Asean intervention. And if we understand the Aquino administration’s total approach correctly, working through Asean remains part of its strategy. There is a particular necessity to this line of approach, because Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei are also involved in territorial disputes with China.
We must also note that the “Asean-China” framework is an advance on last July’s failed summit, when Cambodia, a staunch Chinese ally, ruled out any mention of the disputes in the proposed joint statement. The consequent imbroglio marked the first time ever that the Asean bloc failed to issue any closing communique.
But the Asean route was never envisioned to be exclusive.
“The Asean route is not the only route for us,” President Aquino quite rightly said at the conclusion of the Monday conference.
The supposed “Asean-China” framework for negotiation is host Cambodia’s answer to the Chinese demand not to “internationalize” the disputes. Now this is high-stakes diplomacy, where the use of key words is carefully calibrated; to both China and Cambodia, “internationalize” means to bring in the Americans.
It would be foolish for the Philippines to agree to the do-not-internationalize approach, however, not because we depend on the United States militarily, but because we must depend on international law and the United Nations legally. That is where the real long-term solution to the conflict lies.
Hence the President’s clearing of the air: “The Asean route is not the only route for us. As a sovereign state, it is our right to defend our national interest.”
The President’s remarks took on additional resonance in the context of the forum in which they were said, because the occasion of the Monday conference was the Asean-Japan summit. Japan, too, has a long-running territorial dispute with China, a dispute complicated by the two countries’ entwined history (Japan invaded China in the 1930s) and perhaps especially by their economic future (China has eclipsed Japan as the world’s second largest economy).
We can get a sense of this contentious relationship from an unusual exchange in the Laotian capital of Vientiane last week.
“Whatever claims or assertion nations may have, Japan will settle disputes in a peaceful manner based on international law,” Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said at the Asia-Europe Meeting. An unremarkable statement, which drew from the Chinese foreign minister the following intemperate reply: “Japan should stop challenging the postwar international order.”
When China hears “peaceful manner” and thinks “challenge to postwar order,” countries like the Philippines must defend its right to understand “international” according to its own national interest.