World Bulletin/News Desk
Southeast Asian nations stepped up efforts on Thursday to engage China in talks to resolve maritime tensions, with Thailand calling on foreign ministers to agree a common stance on the South China Sea ahead of discussions in Beijing later this year.
The initiative by Thailand came as the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) tried to patch up differences that shook the group last year, but struggled to make progress on long-held plans to agree on a dispute-management mechanism.
"Most especially there was a call to have continued engagement with China," Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of this year's summit host Brunei.
He said that Thailand, which has the role of ASEAN coordinator with China, had called for the talks ahead of an ASEAN-China meeting expected in August to commemorate 10 years since they formed a "strategic partnership".
China has said it will only join talks when the time is "ripe" and insists on resolving sovereignty disputes on a bilateral basis. Meanwhile, it has flexed its growing "blue water" naval muscle by occupying some areas claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines, leading to a rise in tension.
Efforts by ASEAN to craft a code of conduct to manage South China Sea tensions all but collapsed last year at a summit chaired by Cambodia, a close economic ally of China.
Cambodia was accused of trying to keep the issue off the agenda despite a surge in tension over disputed areas and growing concern about China's assertive stance in enforcing its claims over a vast, potentially energy-rich sea area.
Without mentioning Cambodia, Philippine President Benigno Aquino drew a strong contrast with last year's discussions following a dinner on Wednesday with fellow leaders.
He described as "beautiful" the fact that Brunei Prime Minister and Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah had brought up the South China Sea issue as the first subject.
"We should really be thankful that the whole of ASEAN is willing to discuss this instead of putting it on the back burner," Aquino told reporters.
The tiny oil kingdom of Brunei has a claim in the South China Sea, but along with Malaysia has taken a more low-key approach compared with the Philippines and Vietnam.
"WORK WITH CHINA"
But prospects for quick progress on a legally binding code of conduct appear dim due to differences over how to frame the agreement.
The summit-concluding communique on Thursday made no new announcement on the code of conduct, but said ASEAN ministers had been tasked to "work actively with China" for an "early conclusion" of the proposed agreement.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea as its territory based on historical records, setting it directly against U.S. allies Vietnam and the Philippines, while Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also claim parts.
A U.S. move to rebalance its military forces to focus more on Asia has threatened to worsen tension, reinforcing China's fears of encirclement.
China has had a permanent naval presence for a year at the Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground 124 nautical miles (230 km) off the Philippines northwestern coast.
Last month, it sent four warships to land troops on its southernmost claim - the James Shoal, 80 km (50 miles) off the Malaysian coast and close to Brunei.
Tensions are likely to tick up again in coming months, as monsoon weather eases and China imposes a unilateral annual fishing ban that has irritated Vietnam and the Philippines.
Frustrated with the slow pace of regional diplomacy, the Philippines in January angered China by asking a United Nations tribunal to order a halt to Beijing's activities, such as those at Scarborough Shoal, that it said violated its sovereignty.
The Philippines appeared to win backing for that approach in Brunei, despite concern that it could be used by China as a reason to further delay talks on a code of conduct.
"What the Philippines has chosen, in our view, is consistent with ... the ASEAN-China process," Natalegawa told reporters.
The Philippines also said that Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung had "expressed support" for its move in a meeting with Aquino.
Last Mod: 25 Nisan 2013, 13:17