4:38 pm | Thursday, April 25th, 2013
BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN—Southeast Asian leaders on Thursday called for urgent talks with China to ensure that increasingly tense territorial disputes over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) did not escalate into violence.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) wrapped up a two-day summit in Brunei with a chairman’s statement in which they emphasized the importance of “peace, stability and maritime security in the region”.
Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the host of the talks, told reporters after the summit that the leaders wanted to “urgently work on a code of conduct” with China aimed at defusing tensions in the strategically vital body of water.
The other key focus at the summit was pushing forward plans to create a single market for Southeast Asia and its 600 million people — known as the Asean Economic Community — by 2015.
However the flashpoint South China Sea issue dominated the meeting, amid growing concern among some Southeast Asian countries over China’s increasing aggression in laying claim to the waters.
China says it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the South China Sea, which is believed to sit atop huge deposits of oil and gas. It is also home to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and richest fishing grounds.
Asean members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan, also claim parts of the sea.
The competing claims have for decades made the area one of Asia’s potential powder kegs for military conflict. China and Vietnam fought battles in 1974 and 1988 for control of islands that left dozens of soldiers dead.
Tensions have risen again in recent years as China has used increasingly aggressive diplomatic and military tactics to assert its authority.
Among the actions that have caused alarm were China’s occupation of a shoal close to the Philippines’ main island last year, and the deployment last month of Chinese naval ships to within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of Malaysia’s coast.
Asean endured unprecedented infighting last year as the Philippines and Vietnam failed to persuade the bloc to send a united message of concern to China.
Cambodia, a close China ally that held the rotating chair of Asean in 2012, blocked the efforts of the Philippines and Vietnam.
Southeast Asian leaders said this week’s summit had successfully led to a regained sense of unity within ASEAN on the issue, with Philippine President Benigno Aquino praising his Brunei host for deft diplomacy that helped build a consensus.
“Everybody is interested in having a peaceful resolution and also in voicing… concern that there have been increasing disputes,” Aquino told reporters.
Nevertheless, analysts said Asean’s calls for China to agree on a legally binding code of conduct for the sea would likely lead nowhere.
Asean and China first agreed to work on a code in 2002, but the Asian superpower has since refused to discuss it further.
“China was never enthusiastic about a code of conduct, as it does not want to sign an agreement that will constrain its sovereignty-building activities,” Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, told AFP.
However Aquino said he was happy that Asean leaders had at least united in trying to ensure the disputes over the South China Sea did not “become bloody”.
“So there is unity of purpose and one can always be hopeful that that will lead to something more concrete,” he said.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said Asean foreign ministers would hold talks with China on the issue during a scheduled event in Beijing later in the year.
But officials gave no indication of whether there could be any meetings before then.
Bolkiah and other Southeast Asian leaders said progress had been made this week on the Asean Economic Community, and more than three-quarters of its framework had been agreed upon.
But they also cautioned the hardest phases of the negotiations had just begun.
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