The fighting within the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) over its relationship with China and the disputed islands in the seas that divide them has struck another sour chord with the Cambodian Ambassador to Manila Hos Sereythonh being sent home.
This came after he accused The Philippines and Vietnam of playing “dirty politics” in their push to establish a united ASEAN stand among its 10 members for dealing with China on the issue. Beijing wants disputes involving the Spratly and Paracel islands dealt with on a bilateral basis.
The resource-rich islands are claimed entirely by China and all or in part by Vietnam, The Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, and straddle important trading routes through the South China Sea, also known as the West Philippine Sea and the East Sea in Vietnam.
Claiming he was ill, Hos did not heed the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) repeated summons last week. He instead sent his Second Secretary Tan Chandaravuth to accept the note seeking an explanation to the situation. Tan, who attended a recent DFA event, also reportedly refused to comment.
At the July summit in Phnom Penh, ASEAN had for the first time in its history failed to issue a joint communiqué after heated bickering over the islands amid claims that Cambodia was abrogating its ASEAN responsibilities and siding with China, by far its biggest financial backer.
However, The Philippines are playing down speculation of a rift between the two countries and that divisions had plummeted relations to the lowest depths in years.
“I don’t think it affects the bilateral relations at all and I’d like to think we’re looking forward to healthy bilateral relations with Cambodia,” Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said.
Perhaps, but The Philippines is unlikely to patch-up its differences with China any time soon. Both countries are enlisting international oil and gas companies to prospect in the waters surrounding the Spratlys. Fishing fleets are also being encouraged into the area with China also deploying a gunboat diplomatic policy sending naval vessels into shoals as far south as Palawan.
That approach has led to charges of Chinese bullying and belligerence, but it also stems from senior politicians in Beijing wanting to look tough while playing on nationalist sentiment, hoping to capitalize on the upcoming Communist party congress when a new crop of leaders will be chosen.