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Watered-down rebuke exposes ASEAN divide

VIENTIANE, Laos – China scored a diplomatic victory yesterday, avoiding criticism by Southeast Asia’s main grouping over its territorial expansion in the South China Sea even though some of the bloc’s members are victims of Beijing’s actions.

After hectic negotiations, the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations issued a watered-down rebuke that amounted to less than a slap on the wrist, and exposed the deep divisions in a regional bloc that prides itself on unity.

In a joint communique released after their talks, the foreign ministers of ASEAN said only that they “remain seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments” in the South China Sea. The statement did not mention China by name in referring to the developments.

Most significantly, it failed to mention a recent ruling by an international arbitration panel in a dispute between the Philippines and China that said Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea were illegal and that the Philippines was justifiably the aggrieved party. China has dismissed the ruling as bogus, saying the Hague-based tribunal has no authority to rule on what Beijing calls bilateral disputes. China wants direct negotiations with the Philippines instead.

China was able to push through its stance in ASEAN with the help of Cambodia, and to some extent Laos, both of which are close friends of Beijing. ASEAN’s guiding principle is to make all statements by consensus, so a veto by Cambodia would have prevented a more stinging rebuke.

“We reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety, and freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea,” the joint statement said.

“We further reaffirmed the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities, and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation,” it said.

Such statements have previously been issued, notably after an ASEAN-US summit in California in February, and have led to criticism that ASEAN is becoming a toothless organization. (AP)

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