SE Asia meeting in disarray over sea dispute with China

PHNOM PENH Fri Jul 13, 2012 9:15am EDT

1 of 3. Cambodia's Foreign Minister Hor Namhong addresses the closing ceremony of the 45th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Phnom Penh July 13, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Samrang Pring

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PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A Southeast Asian regional summit ended in acrimony on Friday over China's assertive role in the strategic South China Sea, failing to agree on a concluding joint statement for the first time in its 45-year history.

Divisions between the 10 countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) follow a rise in incidents of naval brinkmanship involving Chinese vessels in the oil-rich waters that has sparked fears of a military clash.

The Philippines said it "deplores" ASEAN's failure to address the worsening row, and criticized Cambodia -- a close ally of China -- for its handling of the issue during the foreign ministers' meeting.

Without mentioning China, Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario told a news conference in Manila that one "member state's" intrusions into Philippine territory were part of a "creeping imposition" of its claim over the entire South China Sea and were raising the risk of a conflict.

The South China Sea has become Asia's biggest potential military flashpoint as Beijing's sovereignty claim over a huge, looping area has set it against Vietnam and the Philippines as the three countries race to tap possibly huge oil reserves.

The stakes have risen as the U.S. military shifts its attention and resources back to Asia, emboldening its long-time ally the Philippines and former foe Vietnam to take a bolder stance against Beijing.

ASEAN's divisions are an ominous sign for a bloc that wants to create a regional economic community by 2015 that would bring down barriers in trade, labor and financial markets -- partly to compete with China for investment.

China is a member of the East Asian Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum which also held meetings in Cambodia.

"The increasing assertion by this member state over the disputed and non-disputed areas poses a threat to the peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region," del Rosario said.

"If left unchecked, the increasing tension that is being generated in the process could further escalate into physical hostilities which no one wants."

China has been accused of using its heavy influence over summit chair Cambodia and several other ASEAN members to block regional-level discussions on the issue and attempts to agree a binding maritime Code of Conduct to manage the dispute.

The Philippines said it took "strong exception" to Cambodia's statement that the non-issuance of a communique was due to "bilateral conflict between some ASEAN member states and a neighboring country".

It said it had only requested that the communique mention the recent standoff between Chinese and Philippine ships at the Scarborough Shoal, a horseshoe-shaped reef in waters that both countries claim.

Indonesia, the biggest economy in Southeast Asia, played down the rift. "No doubt the South China Sea at the moment is a difficult issue but I'm sure ASEAN will find ways and means to be able to address that problem," Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told Reuters.

But the rising tensions were underlined on Friday when the Chinese navy said that one of its frigates had run aground on Half Moon Shoal, about 90 nautical miles off the western Philippine island of Palawan.

China said it was conducting a rescue mission and the Philippines said it was sending "assets" to the area to investigate and provide assistance if needed.

"That's a very strategic location to strengthen their claim over the Reed Bank, they are getting closer to our territory, putting one foot inside our fence," one military official told Reuters.

The Philippines scrambled aircraft and ships to the Reed Bank area last year after Chinese navy ships threatened to ram a Philippine survey ship.

"COMBAT READY"

China said last month it had begun "combat-ready" patrols in waters it said were under its control in the South China Sea, after saying it "vehemently opposed" a Vietnamese law asserting sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino told Reuters in an interview last week that he may ask the United States to deploy spy planes to monitor the disputed waters.

China, whose trade and investment ties with Cambodia have surged in recent years, has warned that "external forces" should not get involved in the dispute, which it says should only be discussed bilaterally. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also lay claim to parts of the South China Sea.

Vietnam's Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said he was "very disappointed" over the failure to issue a statement.

In a statement issued late on Thursday, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi repeated that there was "no dispute" about China's sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal.

"China hopes the Philippine side faces the facts squarely and stops creating trouble," he added.

The United States has stressed it is neutral in the long-running maritime dispute, despite offering to help boost the Philippines' decrepit military forces. It says freedom of navigation is its main concern about a waterway that carries $5 trillion in trade - half the world's shipping tonnage.

(Stuart Grudgings reported from Kuala Lumpur.; Additional reporting by Manuel Magato in Manila, Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Olivia Rondonuwu in Jakarta; Editing by Jason Szep and Jeremy Laurence)

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Comments (19)
Free_Pacific wrote:
So the long painful road of Chinese obstruction and interference beyond it’s shores in the Pacific has begun. Clearly now, inviting Cambodia into ASEAN was a trojan horse.

ASEAN is not the only forum to be manipulated by China, where money has been used to the detriment of the entire organisation, for the benefit of a non-member (China).

This situation is similiar to interference in the Pacific Islands Forum, where China gives dollar support to those who wish to act contrary to the regions goals and interests (Fiji). Undermining the shared efforts of all, for their own self interest.

China has become in a short time, the most gluttoness, unpredicatable and wholy destabilising force in the Asia-Pacific since 1937. This time instead of being the victim, it is the protagonist. Looking back, the U.S embargo against Japan to force her to stop the assault on China, ultimately leading Japan to attack south, was misplaced resolve.

Will the U.S have the resolve to now defend the small island states? Or give us the green light, to remove pacifist constitutions in places like Japan. If the U.S allows one inch of territory to fall to this monster, then clearly it’s entire security umbrella in the Asia-Pacific region is a falsity and we need the tools and equipment to defend ourselves.

President Obama, look to the echoes of The British and their misplaced sense of superiority. They were proven to be incapable in the Pacific with the Sinking of the Prince of Wales, the Repulse and the fall of Singapore. The writing is on the wall. If you dont have the will, then it is time for Japan and the rest of us to build what we need without restriction.

Jul 13, 2012 5:25am EDT  --  Report as abuse
vision966 wrote:
It is a “feel good” criticism of China but it doesn’t make a nation any more intelligent to deal with whatever lies ahead. Not in support of China, but here your Hilary did the right thing staying neutral at least superficially. By all accounts Asean is a 10-member association. Philippines is claiming all the spoils for her own benefit only but she is asking all the other nations which has nothing to do with her part of claim to back her up. If one is not mistaken Asean has a well documented principle and agreement that each member cannot interfere with another’s domestic interest. In this case, Philippine is claiming a territory for herself and hence it is a domestic interest since that territory does not belong to a collective Asean! So why the need to break the rule and bring in the others? Before Myanmar agreed to loosen her domestic political arena, all the other 9 members collectively prevented other nations that includes the United States of America from interfering directly into Myanmar. So now it seems Philippines is conjuring a scheme to draw the US into pressuring the other states to “trespass” that agreed principle and the foresight of Hilary just prevented the US from falling into Philippines’ trap and earn US a bad name in an important region!

Jul 13, 2012 6:40am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Favio wrote:
The rest of the world (G-8) are not sympathetic to our cause because they are powerful and can not be bullied by China. We Asean are. It is time for all Asean members to stand up against China. There is power in numbers if we are together. If divided, Asean nations will fall. Boycotting their product is one, putting together a formidable voices and display of collective military might patrolling each territorial waters within 200 nautical miles is another. Bully will only stop from bullying if we fight back and put an end to it.

Jul 13, 2012 8:10am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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