Southeast Asia fails to tackle sea spat with China head on

PHNOM PENH, April 4 Wed Apr 4, 2012 7:27am EDT

PHNOM PENH, April 4 (Reuters) - The Philippines claimed progress on Wednesday in persuading Southeast Asian leaders to present a united front to China in a festering maritime dispute, but the region remains divided over how to tackle its biggest security challenge.

The 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is under growing pressure to resolve the dispute following a series of naval clashes over the energy-rich maritime region claimed by China.

But progress has been slowed by the group's principle of consensus decision-making and by the heavy economic influence that China has over some countries, including this year's ASEAN chair host, Cambodia.

China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan have conflicting claims over the Spratly Islands, an area believed to have rich deposits of oil and gas. It is also a rich fishing ground.

The stakes have risen sharply over the past year as the United States has refocused military attention on Asia and strengthened its strategic alliance with the Philippines.

A statement by ASEAN following a two-day leaders' summit in Phnom Penh barely mentioned the South China Sea dispute, saying only that the leaders had reaffirmed a commitment to implementing a declaration signed in the same city 10 years ago.

China has agreed to work with ASEAN on formulating a binding "code of conduct" on naval activities, but the region is divided over whether Beijing should take part in talks from the beginning or only join after ASEAN agrees on the fundamentals.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino had requested that the group agree to "ASEAN centrality" by setting out the code before entering into negotiations with China.

It was unclear whether he had been successful. Aquino's political affairs adviser issued a statement in Manila saying there was a consensus among ASEAN states to support Manila's "multilateral" recommendations.

"It's a welcome development," the statement said.

But a Philippine diplomat involved in the negotiations told Reuters that the Philippines was frustrated by Indonesia's rejection of any conflict resolution mechanism in the code. The diplomat added that other countries, including Cambodia, were either lukewarm to the proposal or had ignored it altogether.

A series of naval flashpoints over the past year, as China, the Philippines, and Vietnam push ahead with plans to develop oil and gas fields, has highlighted the inadequacy of the ASEAN approach.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said ASEAN would formulate a code of conduct but with "constant communication through the ASEAN-China framework".

"The big picture is the one that must not be lost," he told reporters. "Namely that in contrast to the recent past, now we have a situation where all are basically rushing and competing to get the Code of Conduct off the ground."

Cambodia's tenure as chair of ASEAN this year adds to doubts that the group will be able to formalise the code of conduct, which the Philippines and Vietnam are keen to achieve this year.

Slow progress on agreeing to the rules highlights a divide within the group as China makes its rising economic and diplomatic clout felt in mainland countries such as Cambodia and Laos. Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Cambodia days before the ASEAN summit, raising suspicions that Beijing was seeking to influence talks on the South China Sea.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen denied China had asked for any assistance on the dispute, calling it a "serious misunderstanding".

"Cambodia is not goods to be bought by anyone," he said at a closing news conference. (Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato in Manila; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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