ASEAN seeks more talks with China over sea dispute

Posted at 11/15/12 7:52 PM

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - In July, the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met with regional counterparts, including China and the United States in Phnom Penh for an annual meeting.

Hands were shaken and photographs taken, but behind the smiles there was tension over territorial disputes in the South China Sea and disagreements on the wording of a joint ASEAN statement on the issue.

In the end, the high-level meetings closed without a joint communiqué for the first in ASEAN's 45-year history.

ASEAN host Cambodia said this was due to a lack of consensus. But some countries criticised Cambodia, a recipient of large amounts of aid from Beijing, for siding with China and keeping the South China Sea issue off the ASEAN agenda.

But Cambodia's refusal to add a reference to the Philippines' dispute with China was in the end what derailed diplomatic attempts to issue a concluding joint statement.

"I think China will agree to it, (Code of Conduct) I think over time, if you make the approach well. But if you do it and link your efforts to the interest of other countries outside, (such) as the U.S. there are reasons to believe that the Philippines is playing the U.S. card. If that happen then you will have a very difficult China to deal with," said former president of the United Nations General Assembly, Razaki Ismail.

The United States is not a claimant to the disputed waters. But its vessels pass through the area which is a vital shipping lane and the United States has repeatedly called for negotiations to reach a peaceful resolution which will bring security to the area.

Following the ASEAN Regional Forum debacle, Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa went around the region meeting foreign ministers in what he called "shuttle diplomacy" hoping to create some sort of common ground to continue talks.

At a news conference on Thursday (November 15) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's Foreign Minister Hor Namhong congratulated ASEAN for making progress on the contentious territorial issue.

"The countries that are involved in the South China Sea issue agreed to discuss in order to create a Code of Conduct, COC. We congratulate them for the negotiations in order to create the COC," he told reporters.

Washington's interest in Asia is backed by U.S. President Barack Obama's pledge to pivot U.S. foreign policy towards Asia, away from the turmoil in the Middle East.

He and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have emphasised the huge economic and market potential of the area and Obama is due to make his first visit to Cambodia in coming days to reiterate U.S. commitment in the region.

"We will create an ASEAN-U.S. centre, the same as we have created for ASEAN-Japan, ASEAN China and ASEAN (South) Korea in order to push for tourism, trade, investment and other forms of co-operation with the United States and ASEAN," Cambodia's foreign minister added.

The United States may be an observer in the sensitive territorial issue, but political watchers worry that U.S. interest may harden the traditional stances of those involved.

China maintains bilateral talks are the key to resolution but other claimants seek a collective approach, such as through ASEAN.

Political watchers believe, due to behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts, that talks for the creation of a Code of Conduct will pick up where they left off in July, although China, with its upcoming leadership change, will still hold the cards in the long term.

"We might have to wait for the new Chinese administration who will handle the policy in China and we can proceed after that. While there're no Code of Conduct (COC), we'll encourage the activities according to the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC)," said Arthayudh Srisamoot, Thailand's ASEAN Secretary General, who recently hosted an ASEAN senior officials' meeting on the South China Sea issue.

The meetings between ASEAN and regional partners is set to kick off on Thursday with working-level talks and will end next Tuesday (November 20) in the Cambodian capital with a summit.