| PHNOM PENH, April 4
PHNOM PENH, April 4 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
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
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
"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
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
"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