ASEAN seeks common ground on S.China Sea spat-ministers

Thu Jul 19, 2012 3:17am EDT

Related Topics

* Cambodian and Indonesian foreign ministers push for consensus

* Indonesian foreign minister on whistle-stop SE Asia tour

* Large Chinese fishing fleet arrives in Spratly Islands

By Prak Chan Thul

PHNOM PENH, July 19 (Reuters) - Southeast Asian states are working to craft a joint ASEAN statement over the South China Sea issue on Thursday, Cambodia's foreign minister said, in an apparent effort to repair discord that led to an unprecedented failure to issue a communique after a regional summit last week.

The foreign ministers of Indonesia and chair country Cambodia said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) said they hope to agree on "a number of issues" among all 10 ASEAN member states imminently after failing to do so for the only time in its 45-year history.

"We, ASEAN foreign ministers, agreed in principle on a number of issues over the South China Sea issue," Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told a brief news conference, without giving details.

"I hope that by tomorrow morning, we will receive approval confirmation from all ASEAN foreign ministers in order to announce these points."

The disagreement has exposed how deeply ASEAN member states have been polarised by China's rapidly expanding economic influence in the region.

The announcement came after Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa visited Cambodia on Thursday as part of his whistle-stop Southeast Asian tour aimed at rescuing the group's tattered image.

Natalegawa said the key points of the statement had been outlined and the "basic positions" could be announced imminently if the other states were to approve.

"If a consensus is confirmed in the next few hours, in the next few moments, then perhaps, the chairman would be in a position to formally announce those basic ASEAN positions," he said, without elaborating.

Bickering over how to address the increasingly assertive role of China -- an ally of several ASEAN states -- in the strategic waters of the South China Sea has placed the issue squarely as Southeast Asia's biggest potential military flashpoint.

China has territorial claims over a huge area covering waters that Vietnam and the Philippines say they also have sovereignty over. All three countries are eager to tap possibly huge offshore oil reserves.

On Thursday, China's state-run news agency Xinhua said a fishing fleet of 30 boats, including a 3,000-tonne lead boat, arrived at what China calls the Zhubi Reef in the Spratly Islands for fishing on Wednesday, almost a week after leaving port in south China's Hainan province.

The reef is claimed by Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

"Although Chinese fishermen have fished in the South China Sea for centuries, the size of the fishing fleet makes it a rarity," Xinhua said.

ASEAN included Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

In 2002, ASEAN and China adopted an informal code of conduct in the South China Sea to avoid conflict and ease tensions. Last week they indicated efforts to work on a formal code, although no firm commitments were made.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended last week's summit and called on all parties, including China, to make clear exactly what their claims were in the South China Sea and open multilateral talks, something likely to rile Beijing, the resident superpower that a bilateral approach.

The United States insists it is neutral on the issue, but having recently signed military cooperation agreements with claimant states Vietnam and the Philippines, China has become increasingly wary of its intentions. (Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Ed Lane)

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