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ASEAN to claim "common ground" on S.China Sea, but no communique

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Southeast Asian states have reached a “common position” on the disputed South China Sea, but will not resurrect a joint communique aborted after unprecedented discord over the issue at a summit last week, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister said on Friday.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa (R) talks to his Cambodian counterpart Hor Namhong (back facing camera) during a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Phnom Penh July 19, 2012. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

Marty Natalegawa sought to put a positive gloss on two days of shuttle diplomacy that failed to rally members of the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN) behind a belated, face-saving communique.

They had failed to agree the customary end-of-summit joint statement last Friday for the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history. The divisions follow a rise in incidents of naval brinkmanship involving Chinese vessels in the oil-rich waters that has sparked fears of a military clash.

Natalegawa told Reuters the 10 members had agreed on the components of an ASEAN “instrument” that would be issued by chair Cambodia later on Friday and would detail what was agreed upon during last week’s ASEAN Regional Forum in Phnom Penh, including the maritime dispute.

“We are trying so that other decisions made by the foreign ministers will be formulated in a different instrument for follow up,” Natalegawa told Reuters.

“The non-existence of a joint communique is behind us,” he said, adding that the customary communique was aborted last week because one of the four paragraphs relating to the South China Sea in the 132-paragraph draft could not be agreed on.

Disputes 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.

The failure to issue the communique and the bitter rows behind closed doors over what words to use and what to exclude have been a huge embarrassment for a 10-member bloc planning to form an EU-style economic community by 2015.

The row illustrated how Southeast Asian nations have been polarised by China’s rapidly expanding influence in the region and the economic dependence on Beijing that some of ASEAN’s poorer states now have, among the Cambodia, this year’s chair.

Despite stark differences on some of the more contentious issues, such as how to deal with its once rogue member, Myanmar, ASEAN had always managed to at least appear to be unified by delivering a communique at the end of its summits.

Natalegawa suggested the bloc would release some kind of statement that would detail six “all-weather” principles of ASEAN, without referring to specific incidents in the South China Sea.

He did not elaborate on that, but said ASEAN had learned lessons from the discord in Phnom Penh.

“You can only have an ASEAN that is central in the region if ASEAN itself is united and cohesive. Last week we were tested, there have been some difficulties but we have grown the wiser from it,” he said.

“Indonesia took the initiative to recalibrate ASEAN through the 36-hour effort, shuttle diplomacy, visits and working the phones and we can now reach a common position again on the South China Sea.” (Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Alex Richardson)