Southeast Asia to reach out to China on sea disputes

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei Thu Apr 25, 2013 8:44am EDT

1 of 3. A general view of the retreat during the ASEAN Summit at the Prime Minister's Office in Bandar Seri Begawan April 25, 2013. Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gathered in Brunei's capital for two days beginning Wednesday for their 22nd summit.

Credit: Reuters/Ahim Rani

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei (Reuters) - Southeast Asian nations stepped up efforts on Thursday to engage China in talks to resolve maritime tensions, agreeing to meet to try to reach common ground on disputed areas of the South China Sea ahead of planned discussions in Beijing later this year.

Efforts by ASEAN to craft a code of conduct to manage South China Sea tensions all but collapsed last year at a summit chaired by Cambodia, a close economic ally of China, when the group failed to issue a closing statement for the first time.

Cambodia was accused of trying to keep the issue off the agenda despite a surge in tension over disputed areas and growing concern about China's assertive stance in enforcing its claims over a vast, potentially energy-rich sea area.

Thursday's initiative came as the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) tried to patch up differences that shook the group last year, but struggled to make progress on long-held plans to agree on a dispute-management mechanism.

Thailand, which has the role of ASEAN coordinator with China, called for the talks ahead of an ASEAN-China meeting expected in August to commemorate 10 years since they formed a "strategic partnership".

ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh told reporters that ASEAN would approach China with a common stance.

"When we come to our partners to discuss important issues, we come as a group and we come with one common position," he said, adding that the next move would be to get China to participate in the negotiations.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea as its territory, setting it directly against U.S. allies Vietnam and the Philippines, while Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also claim parts.

China insists on resolving sovereignty disputes on a bilateral basis. It has flexed its growing "blue water" naval muscle by occupying some areas claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines, leading to a rise in tension.

Without mentioning Cambodia, Philippine President Benigno Aquino drew a strong contrast with last year's discussions.

He described as "beautiful" the fact that Brunei had brought up the South China Sea issue as the first subject.

"We should really be thankful that the whole of ASEAN is willing to discuss this instead of putting it on the back burner," Aquino told reporters.

The tiny oil kingdom of Brunei, in marked contrast to Cambodia, it is keeping the maritime issue high on the agenda.

"WORK WITH CHINA"

But prospects for a legally binding code of conduct appear dim. The summit-concluding communiqué on Thursday made no new announcement, but said ASEAN ministers had been tasked to "work actively with China" for a conclusion of the proposed agreement.

A U.S. move to rebalance its military forces to focus more on Asia has threatened to worsen tension, reinforcing China's fears of encirclement.

China has had a permanent naval presence for a year at the Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground 124 nautical miles off the Philippines northwestern coast.

Last month, it sent four warships to land troops on its southernmost claim - the James Shoal, 80 km (50 miles) off the Malaysian coast and close to Brunei.

Tensions are likely to rise again in coming months, as monsoon weather eases and China imposes a unilateral annual fishing ban that has irritated Vietnam and the Philippines.

Frustrated with the slow pace of regional diplomacy, the Philippines in January angered China by asking a United Nations tribunal to order a halt to Beijing's activities, such as those at Scarborough Shoal, that it said violated its sovereignty.

The Philippines appeared to win backing for that approach in Brunei, despite concern that it could be used by China as a reason to further delay talks on a code of conduct.

(Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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Comments (3)
Globalman wrote:
China is becoming more and more militant with its neighbors. You have to wonder if this is a harbinger of things to come as China extends its naval power globally.

Apr 25, 2013 7:32am EDT  --  Report as abuse
MikeBarnett wrote:
In 2002, China signed the Conduct of Parties (COP) agreement with ASEAN in which all claimants to the South China Sea agreed to resolve their differences peacefully. In 2011, China signed bilateral treaties with all claimants to the South China Sea that requires the parties to resolve all differences peacefully. China has obtained all that it wants.

As an American, I am aware that most of my countrymen are worthless morons who cannot understand the implications of the first paragraph. All claimants to the South China Sea have signed two agreements to settle their disputes peacefully, so they cannot legally go to war over these issues. China does not need the uncertain resources of the waters in dispute at this time because it sits next door to the world’s biggest oil and gas station in Russian Siberia; it has bought oil and gas development rights in the Middle East and other regions; and its massive, continental irrigation plan from 2001-2020 includes aquaculture. However, the other countries have bound themselves legally to take no forceful action to take, enforce, or establish new claims to the disputed areas. China does not need to do anything except oppose the unilateral actions of others in the controversies and explain to them that they agreed to do nothing but negotiate.

China has an unarmed, high seas unit, China Maritime Surveillance (CMS), that has big, white ships with the full name in english in big, blue letters on each side. These 400 ships are the size of destroyers, frigates, corvettes, and patrol vessels, and China could convert them into warships quickly if the need arose. They train Chinese crews for sailing beyond the coast in vessels with the size and performance of warships. However, they help maintain the peace at this time because they are not armed.

Most Americans are unhappy with the current situation because they have been bombing the US into economic destitution for 11.5 years, and China has found another way to defeat the US by NOT fighting a war. There are also terrorists and their supporters in the US and other countries who want the US to fight a disastrous war with China because the strategy of terrorist groups is to persuade the West to destroy itself.

Despite the sometimes strident rhetoric, no one is fighting, and they have agreed not to fight. Some news organizations may make lower profits without a major war, but negotiations are better for trade and prosperity that the US could use at this time in its history. To win a war is competence; to win a war without fighting that war is genius.

Apr 25, 2013 4:22pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Small success in view of larger problem: China. Unless and until ASEAN has the political courage to stand up against Chinese invasion of South China Sea and back it up with economic and military counter-measures… China will continue to fabricate facts, double-talk while gaining more control of the regional sea. Given the size differential between China and many smaller claimant nations, the global commitments are additionally, required: not the vague calls for peaceful resolution and/or “pivot to Asia” while it’s so clear that only China is escalating hostilities, violating international laws and criminally attacking its neighbors. The reality of this strategically, important waterway is beyond diplomatic niceties, it’s either physically stop China aggression now or watch it dominate South East Asia for years to come.

Apr 26, 2013 8:13am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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