Japan warned on Monday that a row over the South China Sea could damage peace and stability in Asia as China stalled on a plan to ease tensions and disagreements flared between the Philippines and Cambodia over the contentious territorial issue.
The acrimony provided an uneasy backdrop to US president Barack Obama's arrival in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh for a regional summit. He is expected to urge China and Southeast Asian nations to resolve the row over the South China Sea, one of Asia's biggest security issues.
Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda challenged efforts by summit host Cambodia to limit discussions on the mineral-rich sea, where China's territorial claims overlap those of four Southeast Asian countries and of Taiwan.
Prime minister Noda raised the issue of the South China Sea, noting that this is of common concern for the international community, which would have direct impact on peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific, a Japanese government statement said after Noda met leaders from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). That followed a statement on Sunday from Kao Kim Hourn, a Cambodian foreign ministry official, who said Southeast Asian leaders had decided that they will not internationalise the South China Sea from now on.
In a sign of Southeast Asian tensions over Chinese sovreignty claims, Philippine president Benigno Aquino disputed the Cambodian statement and said no such agreement had been reached, voicing his objections in tense final minutes of discussions between Noda and Southeast Asian leaders. As Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen began to conclude the meeting with Noda, Aquino abruptly raised his hand and tersely interjected.
There were several views expressed yesterday on Asean unity which we did not realise would be translated into an Asean consensus, he said, according to his spokesman. For the record, this was not our understanding. The Asean route is not the only route for us. As a sovereign state, it is our right to defend our national interests.
Alternative diplomatic routes for the Philippines would likely involve the United States, a close ally which has said it has a national interest in freedom of navigation through the South China Sea's vital shipping lanes. Cambodia's political and economic ties with China have strengthened in recent years.
Asean on Sunday agreed to formally ask China to start talks on a code of conduct (CoC) aimed at easing the risk of naval flashpoints, according to its secretary general, Surin Pitsuwan. But