NUSA DUA, Indonesia – Southeast Asian nations yesterday backed away from establishing a united front against China over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, as Beijing warned against the initiative.
The Philippines is pushing for a joint stand on the issue among Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders’ meeting on Indonesia’s Bali island this week, according to an internal document obtained by AFP.
China has caused disquiet in Washington and Asian capitals with its claim to all of the South China Sea, a region that encompasses vital shipping lanes and which is believed to sit atop vast oil and mineral reserves.
China’s rival Taiwan, as well as ASEAN countries the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, also lay claim to all or part of the area, and Manila pushed for a meeting of all six countries involved.
But Beijing, which prefers to negotiate individually with its weaker neighbors, said it was not appropriate to discuss territorial rows at the East Asia Summit, which will take place in Bali this week.
“China believes that the disputes should be resolved through peaceful consultations between parties directly concerned,” China’s assistant foreign minister Liu Zhenmin told journalists at a briefing in Beijing.
“The intervention of outside forces is not helpful for the settlement of the issue, on the contrary it will only complicate the issue and sabotage peace and stability and development in the region,” he said in an apparent reference to the United States, which is joining the East Asia Summit this year.
Beijing’s economic and political clout mean that ASEAN members cannot afford to cause offence, making the establish- ment of a unified position difficult.
Despite deep concern in the region over the maritime dispute, there were few backers for the initiative proposed by the Philippines, which has taken a forthright stand on the issue in recent years.
“China is showing a positive step by organising seminars and workshops, that is very positive. ASEAN should recipro- cate on that,” Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman told AFP.
“To introduce another forum will com- plicate the matter further,” he said, adding it was more constructive to concentrate on a non-binding declaration of conduct, even though critics have dismissed it as toothless.
Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Hor Namhong also declined to support Ma- nila’s proposal.
“We are not against,” he told AFP, laughing, before adding: “The problem is how to avoid… duplication.”
ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsu- wan indicated the concept was being put on the diplomatic back burner, saying it “remains to be discussed further”.
He echoed other ministers’ views that the region should focus on a legally bind- ing code of conduct, which has eluded agreement for years.
“That issue is gaining momentum and we are making progress. There will be some efforts here and there in order to strengthen this momentum,” he said.
Phl pushing for ‘zone of peace’
Despite this, the Philippines remains committed to pushing for a “zone of peace” with China at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) sum- mit here this week to settle the volatile West Philippine Sea territorial disputes.
China, on the other hand, opposes discussing claims to the South China Sea at the summit. China wants individual negotiations to settle the claims in the potentially oil-rich region.
“The Philippines believes that a rules- based approach is the only legitimate way in addressing disputes in the West Phil- ippine Sea (South China Sea),” Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said yesterday at the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting here.
The government also plans to pursue other means such as third party adjudica- tion, arbitration or conciliation as may be appropriate in the context of the dispute settlement mechanism of the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Del Rosario said the rules-based ap- proach was embodied in the “zone of peace, freedom, friendship, and coopera- tion.”
“We believe that the ‘zone of peace’ is the actionable framework to clarify and segregate the disputed land features from the non-disputed waters of the West Phil- ippine Sea, and in the process, address the issue of the nine-dash line. This process of segregation would have enabled a work- able cooperation between and among ASEAN and China, especially the littoral and claimant states in the South China Sea,” he said.
The “zone of peace” is consistent with the rules-based framework of managing the disputes in the West Philippine Sea and is, likewise, pursuant to the DOC (Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea), Del Rosario added.
He said ASEAN should play a positive and meaningful role to contribute in the peaceful resolution of the disputes in the South China Sea.
US wants access to South China Sea
President Obama said during the re- cently concluded Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Hawaii that he wanted the United States to have un- controlled access in the South China Sea when he attends the ASEAN summit in Indonesia.
“We’re going to be speaking, again, about how can we, a great Pacific power, work with our (ASEAN) partners to ensure stability, free flow of commerce, maritime rules and drilling and a whole host of issues are managed in an open and fair way,” Obama said.
He made the statement in response to a query made by journalist Jim McNerney about his main agenda in his subsequent visit to Australia, another US ally.
By “drilling,” the US leader meant oil explorations in the disputed Spratlys area. Admiral Robert Willard of the US Pacific Command has confirmed that the US government has interests in the South China Sea since such lane carries $5.3 trillion in bilateral annual trade.
“South China Sea is a very important maritime common for the entire region. So the South China Sea region and the sea lanes that it contains are incredibly vital to the region, to our partners and allies, and certainly to the US,” Willard said.
President Aquino had earlier said that Forum Energy, an American firm, will start oil explorations north of Palawan that would “dwarf” the Malampaya oil fields.
Energy Secretary Jose Rene Almendras confirmed Aqui- no’s statement that Forum Energy’s oil explorations will be under way early next year.
the disputed oil-rich Spratly Islands.
Aquino, Almendras and presidential spokesman Ed- win Lacierda have all main- tained that Recto Bank in Palawan, which is 80 nautical miles from the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone, does not fall within
Aquino added that the pur- ported nine-dash line that China has belatedly invoked cannot reach Recto Bank, which is 500 miles away from its mainland. He said it has been known to be the Philip- pines’ property in 1982 and that China claimed it only in 2009. – Aurea Calica, Delon Porcalla, AP
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