ASEAN struggles over maritime dispute with China

Posted at 07/11/2012 1:37 PM | Updated as of 07/11/2012 1:37 PM

PHNOM PENH - China and Southeast Asian countries struggled to make progress Wednesday on a code of conduct designed to ease tension in the flashpoint South China Sea, diplomatic sources said.

The two sides were due to meet at a summit of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Cambodia amid splits on what the code should include and how it should be implemented.

A joint statement to be issued by ASEAN foreign ministers was also held up as countries wrangled over whether to include a reference to recent spats over the resource-rich waterway pitting China against Vietnam and the Philippines.

"ASEAN foreign ministers are having an emergency meeting to resolve the wording on the South China Sea in the joint statement," one Asian diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Another spoke of "splits and divisions" in the organisation, principally between the Philippines and the chair of the meeting, staunch Chinese ally Cambodia.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa admitted the debate about whether to mention specific incidents was a key sticking point.

"It's very important for us to express our concern with what happened whether it be at the shoals, whether it be at the continental shelves," he told reporters.

"But more importantly than simply responding to the past is to move forward to ensure that these kind of events no longer occur."

Tensions rose recently in the sea, where China and a host of neighbouring countries have overlapping territorial claims, with both Vietnam and the Philippines accusing Beijing of aggressive behaviour.

Manila is leading a push for ASEAN to unite to persuade China to accept a code of conduct based on a UN law on maritime boundaries that would delineate the areas belonging to each country.

Beijing has said it is prepared to discuss a more limited code aimed at "building trust and deepening cooperation" but not one that settles the territorial disputes, which it wants to negotiate with each country separately.

ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan told reporters Wednesday that the fact the code was under discussion "is already having a calming effect on all parties".

Planned talks between ASEAN and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Liechi were repeatedly delayed, however, with a meeting originally planned for the morning slipping to a late afternoon slot.

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