JAKARTA, Indonesia—China needs to leave disputed waters of the South China Sea, the Asean secretary-general said Friday.
The “next step now, we have to get China out of the territorial waters of” Vietnam, Secretary-General Le Luong Minh told The Wall Street Journal. “That’s the first thing.”
Doing that “will be conducive to restoring confidence” in talks to resolve disputed claims by several countries in the resource-rich waters, Mr. Minh said.
Mr. Minh, a Vietnamese national, was speaking amid an outburst of violence this week outside Ho Chi Minh City and in central Vietnam in response to a tense standoff over an oil rig China recently placed in contested parts of the South China Sea.
Vietnam says the Chinese oil rig is 241 kilometers from Vietnam’s shore, well within its “exclusive economic zone,” defined by the United Nations as areas extending 370 km from a country’s coast. China, however, claims jurisdiction over the waters, off the Paracel Islands, which are controlled by China but also claimed by Hanoi.
Mr. Minh’s statement was the strongest yet by a spokesman for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Four Asean members—Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei—have territorial disputes with China in the waters.
The statement also marked a shift for Mr. Minh, who during an Asean summit last weekend pointed to a joint statement that expressed “serious concern” over the Vietnam-China confrontation but stopped shy of criticizing Beijing.
On Friday, Mr. Minh said China’s move was a setback to regional talks and showed again that a declaration of conduct signed by China and Asean in 2002 “has not been effective enough in preventing these incidents.”
A lack of progress with China in resolving territorial claims has been “disappointing,” he said, and the latest incident made it all the “more important that we try to engage in substantive consultations and negotiations.”
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told The Wall Street Journal on Friday that he shared Mr. Minh’s view that “this is a very dangerous situation” and that he was calling on Asean members to “renew their thoughts on the South China Sea.”
Mr. Natalegawa stopped short of supporting Mr. Minh’s calls for China to leave the region, but said “China must deliver on its officially stated commitment to implement” the 2002 declaration and push forward with talks in earnest.
Currently, he said, there is “almost an attempt to deny there is an issue in the first place.”
Sek Wannamethee, spokesman for Thailand’s Foreign Ministry, declined to comment on Mr. Minh’s statement, saying the conflict was a bilateral issue between Vietnam and China.
The islands, reefs and atolls of the South China Sea, and the waters around them, are claimed in whole or in part by six governments. Though the disputes have prevented thorough exploration, energy analysts believe significant reserves of oil and gas lie beneath its seabed.