UPDATE 1-China, ASEAN set 'guidelines' on sea row, but no deal expected

Wed Jul 20, 2011 7:04am EDT

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(Adds detail on guidelines)

By Michael Martina and Olivia Rondonuwu

NUSA DUA, Indonesia, July 20 (Reuters) - China and Southeast Asian countries agreed on Wednesday to a preliminary set of guidelines in the South China Sea dispute, a tiny but rare sign of cooperation in a row that has plagued relations in the region for years.

Broader accord on which country owns what in waters believed to be rich in gas and oil however remains as far off as ever.

China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam all claim territory in the South China Sea and the latter four are members of the Association of South East Asian nations (ASEAN). China's claim is the largest.

"We have reached agreement at the senior officials' meeting of ASEAN countries and China some minutes ago, on the guidelines of implementation on the DOC (Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea)," China's assistant foreign minister, Liu Zhenmin, said.

"This is an important milestone document for cooperation among China and ASEAN countries," Liu told reporters on the sidelines of a forum between ASEAN foreign ministers and other regional powers on the Indonesian island of Bali this week.

However, in the South China Sea, four Filipino lawmakers landed on one of the larger disputed islands that is occupied by the Philippines and planted the national flag despite warnings from China.

"Let there be no doubt in anybody's mind, in any foreign power's mind, that if they dare to eject us from Pagasa, if they dare to eject us from our rightful territories, Filipinos will not take that sitting down," said Walden Bello, a left-of-centre member of the House of Representatives.

The guidelines agreed in Bali are an initial set of steps toward making the 2002 declaration, an informal agreement to resolve disputes in the South China Sea peacefully, more conclusive.

Not much progress has been made since then, but ASEAN diplomats said approving the guidelines could remove a bottleneck that prevented discussion on a more specific -- and sensitive -- Code of Conduct. Any settlement of the disputes will come after that.

"What we have achieved, that is the finalisation of the guidelines after eight and a half years of effort, is historic," ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan told Reuters.

RESPONSIBLE

Surin did not say what led to the agreement, but in an apparent reference to China, he said: "The profile, the image, and the impression that you give out to the world that you are a responsible stakeholder, and that you would like the neighbourhood to be at peace (are important).

The guidelines are to be approved by foreign ministers of ASEAN and China on Wednesday.

The Philippines was more guarded in its reaction.

"That's a step forward but there are more steps to be taken, I think, to be able to add teeth," Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario told reporters.

"The necessary elements to make the guidelines succeed are still incomplete," he said, adding that Manila planned to approach the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to get a "compulsory reconciliation" settlement on the disputed areas.

In recent months China has been squaring off with the Philippines and Vietnam on what each says are intrusions into the other's territorial waters.

The South China Sea dispute was expected to take centre stage at the ASEAN meetings this week, but China has long opposed what it calls other countries inserting themselves in bilateral disputes.

It was also likely to be taken up at the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting on Saturday where U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be among the participants.

Both the Philippines and Vietnam have looked to Washington for help in the row, but China has previously sharply criticised the United States for holding military drills in the contested waters. .

"The United States will certainly welcome this kind of achievement that we have had," Surin said, referring to Wednesday's breakthrough.

A copy of the one-page revised draft seen by Reuters called for the implementation of "possible joint cooperative activities, measures and projects". (Additional reporting by Manny Mogato in Manila; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)

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