| NAYPYITAW, Myanmar
NAYPYITAW, Myanmar May 9 A surge of tensions in
the South China Sea threatens to widen divisions between
Southeast Asian nations at a summit this weekend, posing a
severe test for host Myanmar as the newly democratic country
seeks to manage the region's growing alarm over China.
The routine annual meeting of Southeast Asian leaders has
been given a jolt of urgency by a series of collisions this week
between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels after China stationed a
giant oil rig near the disputed Paracel islands, off Vietnam's
coast. Both sides have blamed the other, and dozens of
coastguard and patrol vessels are in the area.
Tensions also spiked in another part of the oil- and
gas-rich South China Sea, with Beijing demanding that U.S. ally
the Philippines release a Chinese fishing boat and its crew
seized on Tuesday off Half Moon Shoal in the Spratly Islands.
In particular, the unprecedented move by China to plant its
drilling rig in Vietnam-claimed waters and guard it with dozens
of ships appears likely to dominate discussions at the summit,
raising questions over Southeast Asia's efforts to agree common
maritime rules in ongoing talks with Beijing.
Myanmar, whose chairmanship of the 10-member Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this year marks a coming out on
the international stage following the restoration of democracy
in 2011, must walk a fine line between preserving ASEAN unity
and not upsetting China, its biggest trade partner.
Differences within the group are already coming to the
surface. Philippine diplomats told Reuters that some states were
opposed to issuing a separate statement on the latest South
China Sea or mentioning the tensions in the communique.
Ian Storey, a security analyst at the Institute for
Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said the summit in
Myanmar's capital Naypyitaw would be "another test of ASEAN
"There will be countries like Vietnam, the Philippines,
Singapore and Indonesia that will want to express serious
concern at recent developments in the final communique," he
"Other members will be more wary, seeing the Paracels as a
bilateral issue between Vietnam and China," he said.
Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Thailand make up the
other members of ASEAN, with the first three seen as especially
keen to maintain good relations with China.
Singapore issued a statement on May 7 expressing concerns
about recent developments and repeating previous calls for ASEAN
and China to work for an early conclusion of the Code of Conduct
in the South China Sea - a set of rules governing naval actions.
Myanmar will host two broader regional summits later this
year, culminating in the East Asia Summit in November that is
attended by the U.S. president as well as the Chinese head of
It will be keen to avoid a repeat of a disastrous ASEAN
summit in 2012 when host Cambodia, a close Chinese ally,
attempted to keep the South China Sea row off the agenda,
resulting in ASEAN's failure to issue a joint statement for the
first time in 45 years.
TOUGH BALANCING ACT
China says territorial disputes should be discussed on a
bilateral basis, but agreed at last year's summits in Brunei to
join talks with ASEAN on framing a Code of Conduct that would
govern maritime conduct, with the aim of reducing the likelihood
of clashes in the South China Sea.
Beijing claims almost the entire sea, and rejects rival
claims from Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and
Brunei. The last four are ASEAN members.
The United States, which has forged closer security ties
with Vietnam in recent years, has declared a national interest
in freedom of navigation through the sea and this week called
China's deployment of the oil rig "provocative and unhelpful."
China in turn has blamed the United States for stoking tensions.
"China will keep talking about the Code of Conduct, as a
short term strategy in damage control," says Maung Zarni, a
Burmese political academic who is a visiting fellow at the
London School of Economics.
"But it will likely opt out of anything binding or anything
that will restrict its ability to do what it feels to be its
historical right - to exploit the South China Sea commercially,
build its bases anywhere it deems essential, or disrupt other
claimants' economic and military activities in the area."
During decades of isolation, Myanmar, formerly known as
Burma, relied on China as its closest diplomatic and military
ally. But since Myanmar began pursuing dramatic reforms, its
relationship with China has cooled.
"I think Myanmar will withstand Chinese pressure more
effectively than Cambodia," said Sean Turnell, associate
professor in economics at Macquarie University in Sydney.
"There really is a deep-seated loathing of aspects of
Chinese commercial activity in Myanmar, and a belief the
previous regime had made some bad bargains on energy and other
big ticket deals."
An official with Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who
declined to be identified, said a repeat of the 2012 breakdown
was unlikely as Myanmar had been weaning itself away from
Chinese influence in recent years.
"It can be seen, although not very clear, that Myanmar has
been trying to reduce the influence of China in its country,
economically and politically," the official said.
Still, Maung Zarni said Myanmar would likely avoid
antagonizing China by pushing for faster progress in concluding
a code of conduct.
"Myanmar may be more independent than Cambodia," he said.
"But it is not independent enough for Naypyitaw to behave in any
way that will displease, annoy, irritate or anger Beijing over
the South China Sea issue."
(Additional reporting by Martin Petty in Bangkok, Nguyen Phuong
Linh in Hanoi, Greg Torode in Hong Kong, Aung Hla Tun in Yangon,
Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Manuel Mogato in Manila; editing by
Stuart Grudgings and Raju Gopalakrishnan)