A summit of Asian leaders has ended in fresh tension over territorial disputes, with Beijing denying it manipulated the agenda of the meeting and the Philippines issuing a stern rebuke to China and host nation Cambodia.
China dismissed accusations on Tuesday that it had used Cambodia, a key ally and recipient of Chinese aid, to drive a wedge between southeast Asian nations over their response to Beijing’s increasingly assertive stance in maritime disputes.
Tensions in the South and East China Seas have escalated in the past two years as Beijing has clashed with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam over waters that encompass vast oil and gas reserves, large fish stocks and key global trade routes.
Cambodia, present chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has in recent days hosted a series of Asean summits, including Tuesday’s East Asia Summit which also included the leaders of the US, China, Japan and India.
It earlier claimed the bloc had agreed not to raise the South China Sea issue at international forums such as the East Asia Summit – prompting an angry response from Benigno Aquino, president of the Philippines.
Mr Aquino insisted Cambodia was mistaken in claiming it spoke for Asean and that “as a sovereign state, it is our right to defend our national interests” by any route. The Philippines faced a perilous maritime stand-off with Beijing earlier this year over one disputed area in the South China Sea.
While Barack Obama, the US president, called for China, Japan and other Asian nations to show restraint amid the escalating regional tensions, Beijing tried to deflect criticism about the way Cambodia had directed the agenda for the meetings.
“Cambodia’s efforts are to safeguard the unity of Asean,” said Qin Gang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, denying that Cambodia had received special treatment from China and suggesting that the Philippines and Vietnam were breaking the regional consensus because of their outspoken response to their disputes with Beijing.
He also blamed Japan for recent clashes over the disputed East China Sea islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, saying relations with Tokyo were “not good” but “the reason is not China’s fault”.
Mr Aquino told leaders including Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, that there was an “urgent” need for countries to clarify their territorial claims in line with the UN law of the sea. “At no time in the contemporary history of the South China Sea has clarification and delimitation of maritime areas become more urgent and imperative,” he said.
While Mr Obama urged the region to forge multilateral solutions to the disputes, Beijing continued to argue that they be discussed on a bilateral rather than international basis and blamed the other countries for disturbing peace and stability in the region.
“President Obama’s message is there needs to be a reduction of the tensions,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy US national security adviser. “There is no reason to risk any potential escalation, particularly when you have two of the world’s largest economies – China and Japan – associated with some of those disputes.”
Earlier, White House officials said that Mr Obama had held a “tense” meeting with Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister. Mr Obama had focused most of his comments on human rights and said that Cambodia had “much further to go on that set of issues”, a White House official said.
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