On March 25, Xinhua reported that Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen had reiterated that the South China Sea dispute is an issue between claimant states and China, not between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China.
“It is not the issue of the whole of ASEAN, but the issue between claimant countries and China,” he said during a graduation ceremony at the National Institute of Education. “They need to negotiate with each other.”
Hun Sen’s remarks – and Xinhua’s reporting of them – while not surprising, are deceiving. And they get to a broader point that resurfaces from time to time, including most recently in a controversy involving the ASEAN Secretary General: does ASEAN have a South China Sea position?
As with many other things in ASEAN, it’s complicated. Yes, Hun Sen is partly right in that there are officially only four ASEAN claimants in the South China Sea who actually have disputes: Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Indonesia, as I noted in a previous piece, does not technically consider itself a claimant, even though China’s nine-dash line map overlaps with Jakarta’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) generated from the resource-rich Natuna Islands chain.