Philippines pushes South China Sea issue at summit

Posted at 04/02/12 8:24 PM

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - The Philippines pushed for discussion of the South China Sea dispute at a regional summit on Monday, despite its omission from the agenda by host Cambodia, calling for progress on an issue at the top of Southeast Asia's security agenda.

The decision by Cambodia to leave the issue off the agenda of this week's Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders' summit, had raised suspicion it had come under pressure from close economic ally China.

Chinese President Hu Jintao told Cambodia during a weekend visit to the country that Beijing did not want talks on a binding code of conduct over disputed areas to move too quickly.

"The Philippines hopes that the Code of Conduct will be a real 'move forward', not merely in terms of form but more importantly in substance," Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told a meeting ahead of the summit, according to a statement obtained by Reuters.

He reiterated a Philippine offer for a summit of countries claiming parts of the South China Sea to discuss the dispute in a manner "based on international law," referring to the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino plans to raise the issue on Wednesday, the summit's second and final day.

China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan all claim territory in the South China Sea. China's claim is the largest.

China has rejected "internationalisation" of the dispute over the resource-rich maritime area, preferring to discuss it bilaterally or with ASEAN, which operates on a principle of consensus. Only four claimants are ASEAN members.

Philippine officials have said they are frustrated over Chinese efforts to slow discussions over formalising a 2002 declaration of conduct and cooperation between ASEAN and China.

Chinese navy ships threatened to ram a Philippine research vessel last March, prompting Manila to scramble planes and ships to the disputed Reed Bank area. The incident prompted Aquino to seek closer ties with Washington, which has signalled a military "pivot" back to Asia.

China, which says it has sovereignty over the sea and the islands within a looping "nine-dashed line" on its maps, rejected a Philippine proposal within ASEAN in November to define contested areas and allow joint development.

Officials in the Philippines on Monday announced plans to develop an island in the disputed Spratlys chain, a proposal likely to rile China. The 37-hectare (91-acre) island, known internationally as Thitu and in the Philippines as Pag-Asa boasts fresh water and a population of a few hundred.