PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia advised a grouping of South East Asian nations to avoid using words that “would escalate tension between China and the Philippines” in a weekend statement, the country’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday.
Cambodia’s support for China’s position on an international court ruling denying the Asian giant’s claims in the South China Sea handed Beijing a diplomatic victory when the grouping’s ministers met on Sunday.
The bloc, which follows an overriding principle of making decisions by consensus, omitted reference to the ruling after its first meeting following the decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in favor of the Philippines.
Phnom Penh advised ministers of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) against the use of words that “would escalate tension between China and the Philippines,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry told reporters on Wednesday.
“The dispute in the South China Sea is between the Philippines and China, not ASEAN and China,” he said.
“So, this shouldn’t drag ASEAN countries into the dispute, and it shouldn’t drag Cambodia to get involved,” he added, describing the Cambodian position at the meeting.
ASEAN needed to maintain its neutrality by not touching on the issue, he added.
Beijing rejects the court’s jurisdiction over its maritime claims in the strategic seaway, and called the case a “farce”.
Any suggestion that China bought Cambodia’s support with soft loans of $600 million a week before the meeting was an “insult”, Sounry said.
Philippines Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay had agreed not to mention the court ruling in the statement, Sounry said.
On Wednesday, the Philippines said it had “vigorously pushed” for the inclusion, but denied that its failure to secure the reference was a diplomatic win for China.
ASEAN foreign ministers met in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and then hosted two days of talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, among others.
The disputed sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes each year, is the most contentious issue for the 10 ASEAN members.
China claims most of the sea, but ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam all have rival claims.
China is adamantly opposed to an ASEAN stand on the South China Sea, preferring to deal with the disputed claims on a bilateral basis.
Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Simon Webb