ASEAN expresses 'serious concerns' over China sea spats

Posted at 05/11/2014 12:36 AM | Updated as of 05/11/2014 2:31 AM

NAYPYIDAW - Southeast Asia's regional bloc voiced alarm on Saturday over escalating tensions in the South China Sea after members Vietnam and Philippines squared off against Beijing in the disputed waters.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers "expressed serious concerns over the on-going developments" in the sea, which is subject to a web of bitter overlapping claims, on the eve of a leaders' summit in Naypyidaw.

Tensions in the South China Sea soared this week after Beijing moved a drilling rig into waters that are also claimed by Hanoi, sparking a stand-off in which Vietnam said its boats were attacked.

The incident drew a statement of concern from the United Nations.

Manila, which has asked a UN tribunal to rule on China's claims over most of the sea, also detained a Chinese fishing boat in disputed territory.

The ASEAN ministers "urged all parties concerned... to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions which could undermine peace and stability in the area" in a statement issued on Saturday.

The statement also called on claimants to "resolve disputes by peaceful means without resorting to threat or use of force".

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said the ministers' meeting was dominated by maritime rows.

China and Vietnam, which fought a brief border war in 1979, have been locked in a longstanding territorial dispute over their contested waters, and frequently trade diplomatic barbs over oil exploration, fishing rights and the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

Beijing claims sovereign rights to almost the whole of the South China Sea, which is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.

The Philippines and Vietnam are the most vocal critics of China's claims among the 10-member bloc.

But the South China Sea is also claimed in part by ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines as well as Taiwan.

Natalegawa said the ASEAN statement was aimed "to be in support of peace and peaceful settlement of disputes".

Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said ASEAN did not want to take sides.

But he said if the bloc stayed silent, "I think our desire to play a central role, our desire to be united, our desire to have a peaceful region -- all of these and ASEAN's own integrity I think will be seriously damaged".

ASEAN suffered a serious knock to its credibility in 2012 during Cambodia's chairmanship of the group when foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communique at their annual meeting for the first time in the bloc's history because of deep divisions on the South China Sea issue.

The Philippines at that time blamed Cambodia, a key Chinese ally, for the fiasco.

Diplomatic sources said the statement on Saturday omitted reference to specific incidents in order to achieve consensus from all ASEAN member states.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters that in issuing the statement, ASEAN would like to see Vietnam, China and other parties settle the dispute peacefully.

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