Alarmed, Aquino raised his hand, stood up and objected to Hun Sen's statement, saying his country, which plans to bring the disputes before a U.N. tribunal, was not party to any such agreement. It was a blunt gesture in the usually servile ambiance of the conservative bloc, an unwieldy collective of rigid, authoritarian regimes and nascent democracies.
After a brief lull, Hun Sen recovered and said Aquino's remarks would be reflected in the record of the meeting. Still, Cambodian and Chinese officials insisted that the agreement stood. Tensions intensified Tuesday when the Philippines was joined by Vietnam and Singapore in objecting to a plan by Cambodia to state in a post-summit statement by the host country that there was indeed such an agreement, Philippine diplomats said.
An objection from the Philippines, or any ASEAN nation, ought to be enough to thrash any agreement because the bloc decides by consensus, meaning just one veto from any member kills any proposal.
"The bottom line is they can talk all they want but if we said we're not with it, there's no consensus, finished," Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters.
The dispute, and Obama's presence here, highlights how ASEAN has become a major battleground for influence in Asia, just like the South China Sea. The U.S. is pushing its "Pacific pivot" to the region following years of engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. China, the Asian superpower, has acted to protect its home ground.
Southeast Asia is clearly pinned in between, and the lack of consensus among the group over the maritime disputes has pushed much of the bloc's other work to the sidelines.
In July, after a foreign ministers' meeting also hosted by Cambodia, the group failed to publicly issue a traditional after-conference communique — an embarrassing failure that was a first in ASEAN's 45-year history. Vietnam and the Philippines had insisted that the joint statement simply state that the South China Sea rifts were discussed, but Cambodia adamantly refused, echoing China's line to keep a lid on public discussions of the disputes.
Ernest Bower of the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, D.C., said the imbroglio in July showed that as long as any ASEAN country remains weak and vulnerable to muscling from a major power, the entire group could be compromised.
"ASEAN learned a hard lesson from the event," Bower said, "namely, that they should never again allow a fellow ASEAN member country to feel so isolated, exposed or dependent on any foreign power that the country feels compelled to step beyond ASEAN protocols ... in a way that damages the organization's interests and profile."
Associated Press writers Grant Peck and Sopheng Cheang contributed to this report.
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