Jul 232016

VIENTIANE—Staunch China ally Cambodia is preventing Southeast Asia from reaching a consensus on the South China Sea after an international tribunal rejected Beijing’s territorial claims to the waters, a diplomat said on Saturday.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is meeting in Laos for the first time since the United Nations-backed tribunal ruled earlier this month that China did not have historic rights to vast swathes of the strategic sea.

The issue is expected to overshadow the summit, with several of the 10 member states also claiming territory in the contested waters.

China invests heavily across Asean but is accused of trying to divide the bloc by habitually offering aid, soft loans and diplomatic support to key allies Laos and Cambodia.

A Southeast Asian diplomat told Agence France-Presse on Saturday that only Cambodia was standing in the way of a joint statement on the waters.

“It’s very grave. Cambodia just opposes almost everything, even reference to respect for legal and diplomatic processes which already had been said in previous statements,” the diplomat said.

A draft of the communique obtained by AFP showed the section titled “South China Sea” currently blank.

Communist-ruled Laos has close links to Beijing and has also been accused of preventing a united front on the South China Sea issue.

But diplomats note that as the chair of Asean this year, Laos is trying to see a statement produced even if it is watered down.

“It does not need to take sides because even if only one country opposes, there is no consensus,” the diplomat.

Another regional diplomat said on Friday that negotiations appeared to be at a deadlock.

“At this point positions are locked. Cambodia has taken a hard line. Laos is hiding behind its role as Asean chair and not saying anything, but at the same time it is careful not to offend China,” the diplomat said.

Chinese pressure was blamed last month for a startling show of discord by the bloc, with countries swiftly disowning a joint statement released by Malaysia that expressed alarm over Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea.

The Philippines brought the international arbitration case against China, while fellow Asean members Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also have competing claims to parts of the sea.

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