ASEAN struggles for unity over South China Sea

Posted at 07/12/12 6:46 PM

PHNOM PENH - ASEAN leaders struggled Thursday to hammer out a final communique at a gathering in Cambodia due to splits over their views on China, officials said, admitting that tempers had at times flared.

"Most of the ASEANs acknowledge that the institution is under enormous pressure and stress right now to maintain unity as it confronts very serious challenges, primarily associated with the South China Sea," a US official said.

The 10-member Southeast Asian bloc was trying to draw up a final joint statement, but it has floundered on the thorny issue of whether to include references to recent disputes in the South China Sea, diplomats said.

The Philippines has been insisting on a reference to a maritime stand-off last month with China over a rocky outcrop known as the Scarborough Shoal, but Beijing ally and chair of the meeting Cambodia has been resisting.

"There has never been a time in the past where ASEAN hasn't had agreement on even the most difficult issues, but even though we are just hours away from the conclusion of these sessions, there is no agreement yet," the US official said.

China claims essentially all of the South China Sea, while Taiwan and ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia also have claims in the waters, causing regular diplomatic flare-ups.

The ASEAN nations have also been seeking, with US encouragement, to begin a process to set up a code of conduct for the South China Sea and aimed to include reference to it in their final statement.

But there was disagreement on the wording, with China apparently exerting huge pressure on some of the countries.

"I think it would be fair to say that tempers in some of the private meetings have run hot. There have been some very tense back and forths," the US official said.

He added "there were a lot of anxieties" about the code of conduct as it went straight to the heart of a lot of national interests, but said the disagreement was a sign that the 10-nation strong association set up in 1967 was maturing.

A second diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that "the pressure from the big country is very intense", referring to China. "It appears that Cambodia has strict marching orders from the big country," he told AFP.

In an unusual move, Indonesia, which is not the chair of this year's meetings, was working "very constructively behind the scenes to try to rally consensus", the US official said.