Special to The Nation
Asia News Network
Even after Asean issued a six-point joint statement on the South China Sea two weeks ago, the war of words between Cambodia and the Philippines has intensified, raising concerns over the East Asia Summit scheduled for November.
Both sides were using the media to defend their positions at the annual meeting of Asean foreign ministers in Phnom Penh last month, which ended without a joint statement for the first time in 45 years.
The war of words between the two countries flared up after an article by Erlinda Basilio, under-secretary of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs. She defended the Philippines position at the annual meeting, which was to insist on mentioning its maritime territorial dispute with China.
Cambodia has launched a regional diplomatic response, with ambassadors in Thailand, the Philippines and even Japan writing letters to newspapers to defend its position as Asean chair.
Foreign Minister Hor Namhong says Cambodia has "tried to prevent the dispute from further flaring up and to avoid adding fuel to the fire. Cambodia's intention is to leave the door open for future talks by the countries concerned".
In addition to the Philippines, fellow Asean members Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.
Amid media claims that Cambodia's loyalty has been "bought" by China, Cambodia has argued that the same could be said of any other state in that lives under the shadow of a much more powerful nation.
The war of words intensified further this week when Hos Sereythonh, the Cambodian ambassador to the Philippines, wrote an article suggesting that the Philippines was playing "dirty politics" at the annual meeting of foreign ministers.
While the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs has summoned him for an explanation, the ambassador has said he is "indisposed" for the time being.
Instead of pointing fingers and throwing mud at each other, the two countries should go to the negotiating table. They need to clear up any misunderstandings and make necessary compromises to serve the interests of Asean as a whole.
Asean has three months to solve this clash of ideas caused by the South China Sea dispute. The East Asia Summit takes place in November. The foreign ministers meet in New York next month. That should be an opportunity make every effort to prevent what happened at last month's meeting from repeating itself at the November summit. All Asean members need to make better contributions to avoid confrontations within the regional group.