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Asean still divided over South China Sea

Publication Date : 14-07-2012


Asean was unable to issue a joint statement yesterday to announce its stance on certain issues, because its members could not agree on certain pertinent items related to the South China Sea issue.

Ministers and officials said they were disappointed with the grouping's failure to be united enough to speak in the same voice when confronted by a super power.

This is the first time in its 45 years that Asean has not been able to announce its decision after an annual meeting, director-general of the Foreign Ministry's Asean Affairs Department, Arthayudh Srisamoot, said.

"We should look into what went wrong in the internal working procedure," he said. "The South China Sea is only one issue, but we had to throw out everything else we had agreed to include in the communique."

Ministers and officials of the 10-member regional grouping have been struggling since Monday to overcome their differences, especially since the Philippines and Vietnam want the group to focus on specific incidents.

The Philippines wants to focus on its recent stand-off with Chinese ships in the Scarborough Shoal, while Vietnam wants Asean to call on all concerned parties to respect the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelves in the sea. Vietnam and China are in dispute because they have granted oil and gas concessions in areas claimed by both of them.

However, Cambodia, the incumbent Asean chair that has strong connections with Beijing, does not want the statement to focus on these issues. This document should have been issued after the Asean ministerial meeting was wrapped up on Monday. Foreign ministers and other senior officials from member countries met several times last week, but were unable to reach a consensus on the issue.

In a last-ditch effort, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa held another meeting yesterday morning but he failed to achieve anything. Not only did those present refuse to budge, but many ministers were unable to attend this impromptu gathering because they had flown out of Phnom Penh.

Meanwhile, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said his government would not take any sides and that issuing a joint statement should be the responsibility of all Asean members, not just that of the chair.

"I requested that we issue a joint communique without mentioning the South China Sea dispute, but some member countries repeatedly insisted on including the issue of the Scarborough Shoal," he told reporters. "I told my colleagues that a meeting of the Asean foreign ministers is not a court, not a place to give a verdict about the dispute."

The South China Sea issue has put Asean-China relations on edge for a long time, especially since China is in dispute with Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam over spots in the sea that are believed to have abundant supplies of petroleum.

Asean and China signed a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002, but it was a non-binding instrument and mostly focused on soft issues such as cooperation on scientific maritime research and environment protection.

The grouping wants China to agree on a more binding code of conduct on the issue and the Asean foreign ministers agreed on Monday to include certain "key elements" in the code. Both sides will be meeting in Phnom Penh in September to discuss these elements.


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