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VIENTIANE, Laos (AP) – Southeast Asia’s main grouping opened a meeting of their foreign ministers Sunday, deeply divided on how to deal with China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea that has impacted some of its members and whipped up an increasing diplomatic quagmire.
Laos is hosting the gathering of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which traditionally ends with a joint statement. But the sticking point is whether to include a reference to the South China Sea. ASEAN’s cardinal principle is decisions by consensus, which means any country can veto a proposal. This time, it appears to be Cambodia, China’s close ally.
In welcoming remarks, Laotian Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith made no mention of the dispute.
In 2012, Cambodia also blocked a reference to the dispute, which ended with the ministers failing to issue a statement for the first time in the bloc’s history.
“Despite conflicts and challenges that have occurred in different parts of the world in general, peace, stability and development cooperation among nations remain the prevailing trend in this era,’’ Kommasith said. “Our collective efforts are imperative to seize opportunities and address challenges facing various parts of the world in an effective manner.’’
The Sunday talks are expected to deal with terrorism, economy, climate change, security, the impact of Brexit and other issues. But at the top of everyone’s mind is the July 12 decision by The Hague-based tribunal in a dispute between China and the Philippines.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration found that China had no basis for its expansive claims to territorial waters around the Philippines. China has similar claims against other ASEAN nations, including Vietnam and Malaysia, and the ruling should have emboldened ASEAN to challenge Beijing more forcibly.
But that’s being prevented by Cambodia, said diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media. They said the draft statement to be issued by the ministers on Tuesday left blank spaces under the heading “South China Sea’’ until a consensus can be reached.