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China's pact with Cambodia, Laos an interference in ASEAN's domestic affairs: Former Sec-Gen

Former ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong said he was surprised that Cambodia and Laos had reached an agreement with China over territorial disputes in the South China Sea as both countries were non-claimants. 

JAKARTA: The recent move by Cambodia and Laos to make a pact with China on how to settle the South China Sea dispute amounted to them interfering with the domestic affairs of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), said former ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong.

Mr Ong, who speaking at the ASEAN Community forum in Jakarta on Monday (Apr 25), said this was surprising because Cambodia and Laos are non-claimant states in the South China Sea territorial dispute. 

Only four ASEAN countries, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Philippines have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea with China.

Mr Ong who is currently the Executive Deputy Chairman of the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore said: “It has always been in the parameter of the ASEAN-China declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea.

"So, for this kind of announcement that two of the non-ASEAN claimant states have said certain things about ASEAN's position, I think it's very surprising.

He added: "We have agreed among ourselves in ASEAN that the dispute concerned have to be worked out bilaterally, China-Brunei, China-Philippines and so on and so forth, but as far as the ASEAN position is concerned Laos is the chairman this year maybe as chairman it has decided to say something on behalf of the group.”

On Saturday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that China reached a four-point consensus with Brunei, Cambodia and Laos on the South China Sea issue.

China’s state news Agency reported that the four countries agreed the territorial disputes were “not an issue between China and ASEAN as a whole”.

While ASEAN agrees that the disputes should be negotiated between rival claims, it takes the position that ASEAN and China should manage it to prevent conflicts.

ASEAN’s Secretary-General Le Luong Minh said ASEAN countries must stick to its common position on the South China Sea based on an agreement adopted in 2012.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the forum Mr Le reiterated that ASEAN’s six point principles which include the early conclusion of regional code of conduct, and continued exercise of self-restrained need to be maintained. Mr Le said China’s strategy to engage countries bilaterally is well-known. 

However, he added parties concerned which may include several countries may engage China together on the matter. "An ASEAN country cannot negotiate with China on disputes that involve also other ASEAN countries," said Mr Le.