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September 21, 2017

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High-pitched China underlines upset at latest ASEAN summit

MANILA -- If there was any doubt that last week's ministerial conferences in Phnom Penh was a failure for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, surrogates of the Chinese government immediately erased any ambiguity by trumpeting the meetings as a success.

What an extraordinary state of affairs: Even after other ASEAN countries led by Indonesia raced to contain the damage from the regional grouping's unprecedented failure to issue even the blandest of joint communiques, Beijing was congratulating itself on its successful muscle-flexing. We have the feckless host Cambodia to thank for that.

The Global Times, an English-language tabloid newspaper published by the People's Daily and therefore controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, ran a remarkable editorial the other day arguing that "provocative neighbors" — the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan, in the newspaper's own ranking of troublemakers — brought disgrace to themselves" by seeking to confront and then losing those confrontations with China.

The Philippines came in for special scorn, even though the Global Times had to resort to an obvious lie to make its point. "Manila attempted to exert pressure on China through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but the request was rejected by the majority of ASEAN members," the editorial read.

The first part is certainly true, but the second is certainly, and equally, false. The position of the Philippines (and Vietnam) was not rejected by the ASEAN majority; in fact, and as the first inside accounts show convincingly, both Manila and Hanoi were ready to accept even a simple mention of the territorial disputes with China on the narrowest terms, as phrased by other ASEAN foreign ministers, but it was Cambodia which decided to exercise its host's privilege to leave any mention of the competing territorial claims out. Manila's "request," in other words, was rejected by a majority of one.

The editorial also took aim at Vietnam for announcing "its new sea law in late June" (exercising greater rights over what Vietnam calls its Eastern Sea) and at Japan for revealing "plans to nationalize the Tiaoyutai Islands" (the territory Japan calls the Senkaku Islands).

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