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ASEAN Splinters on “Internationalization” of Island Disputes

Strange things are afoot at the ASEAN meeting in Phnom Penh.

First, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a statement on behalf of all ten ASEAN nations that the group would not “internationalize” disputes over island and ocean territory. Cambodia is a staunch ally of China, and this statement was seen as a victory for China’s attempts to avoid multilateral discussions on disputed territory.

But then, abruptly, Philippine President Benigno Aquino objected to the Cambodian statement. “For the record, this was not our understanding,” he announced. As the WSJ reports, Cambodia was forced to back down:

Issuing a later statement on behalf of the group—which doesn’t include China—he [Hun Sen] said members reiterated the importance of a decade-old declaration of conduct, which sets out broad principles on conflict resolution. He added countries agreed to work together on solutions based on international law, through negotiations involving countries that are directly concerned. The statement avoided any mention of the earlier comments and several diplomats involved said it had been redrafted after the complaints by some countries.

These fault lines were also visible when Cambodia blocked ASEAN from issuing a joint communiqué, which other countries urged should include language on how to resolve territorial disputes, at the conclusion of an ASEAN meeting in July. This had never happened in ASEAN’s history. It is widely suspected that Cambodia torpedoed the statement on China’s behalf.

At this week’s summit ASEAN’s divisions are once again laid bare for the world to see. President Obama is in attendance, and during meetings with outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and President Aquino, Obama backed the multilateral approach to resolving territorial disputes. A Chinese government spokeswoman quickly contradicted Obama, saying China’s strategy to “protect its sovereignty is necessary and proper.”

The Game of Thrones goes on.

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