ASEAN to press China over sea tensions

Posted at 11/19/2012 8:06 AM

PHNOM PENH - Southeast Asian nations are set to press China on Monday to quickly begin talks on easing tensions over sea territorial rows that have shaken the region and overshadowed efforts to boost trade.

Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are set to raise the contentious South China Sea issues during a meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in the Cambodian capital.

Their meeting is one of the highest-profile set pieces scheduled on the opening day of the East Asia Summit, involving the leaders of ASEAN, China, the United States, Japan, Russia, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

US President Barack Obama will also arrive in Phnom Penh on Monday afternoon after making a historic visit to ASEAN member Myanmar, which is undergoing a dramatic series of political reforms away from military rule.

ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said on Sunday that the bloc would press China to begin formal and official talks on a legally binding code of conduct aimed at easing tensions in the South China Sea "as soon as possible".

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen raised the proposal with Wen during a bilateral meeting in Phnom Penh on Sunday night, however China appeared to initially give no ground.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters after the meeting that China wanted to continue with the current framework of lower-level negotiations that were agreed on a decade ago.

"We already have good discussions with ASEAN," Qin said.

ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan, have claims to parts of the sea, which is home to some of the world's most important shipping lanes and believed to be rich in fossil fuels.

But China insists it has sovereign rights to virtually all of the sea.

The rival claims have for decades made the sea a powder keg issue in the region. Tensions have steadily risen over the past two years amid concerns from some ASEAN countries that China is becoming increasingly aggressive.

Efforts to secure a legally binding code of conduct involving ASEAN and China have floundered for years amid Beijing's preference for handling disputes with individual countries.

The tensions have led to some bruising diplomatic confrontations this year and overshadowed some regional meetings where the participants typically prefer to focus on improving economic ties.

Trade is expected to be one of the other top issues on the agenda at the two-day East Asia Summit.

ASEAN nations are set to officially launch negotiations on Tuesday for an enormous free trade pact with China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

The planned zone would tie together an area that currently accounts for a third of global trade and economic output, making it the biggest free trade area outside the World Trade Organization.

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