Vietnam warns South China Sea is a 'test' of ASEAN

By AFP   July 25, 2016 | 01:06 am PT
Vietnam warns South China Sea is a 'test' of ASEAN
Vietnam's Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh attends a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Vientiane, Laos July 25, 2016. Photo by Reuters/Jorge Silva
"ASEAN should promote solidarity, unity and a central role."

Vietnam has warned that the inability of Southeast Asian nations to forge a unified front against Beijing's militarization of the South China Sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea, is a "test" of the regional bloc in the face of its greatest security challenge.

The unusually strong comments from a key claimant to the contested waters, comes as diplomats meet in Laos for the first summit since a U.N.-backed tribunal debunked Beijing's legal claim to vast stretches of the strategically vital sea.

After talks stuttered on Sunday, Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a late night statement warning that the South China Sea had become "a test case for the unity and the central role of ASEAN".

Southeast Asian nations overcame days of deadlock on Monday when the Philippines dropped a request for their joint statement to mention a landmark legal ruling on the South China Sea, officials said, after objections from Cambodia.

Beijing publicly thanked Cambodia for supporting its stance on maritime disputes, a position which threw the regional bloc's weekend meeting in the Laos capital of Vientiane into disarray.

Four ASEAN members including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have competing claims with Beijing over parts of the South China Sea.

Most members of the bloc want to keep pressure on China over its campaign of island building in the strategic waters.

But ASEAN operates on a tradition of consensus diplomacy, meaning a single nation can have an effective veto power if it disagrees with the others.

China has been accused of teasing poorer members like Laos and Cambodia into fracturing regional unity with promises of aid and trade.

Critics have long derided ASEAN for lacking real diplomatic clout.

Chinese pressure was blamed last month for a startling show of discord by the bloc, when countries swiftly disowned a joint statement released by Malaysia after an ASEAN-China meeting.

That statement had expressed alarm over Beijing's activities in the South China Sea. Cambodia and Laos were later fingered as being behind moves to block the joint statement.

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