Asian ministers discuss South China Sea, security

AP News
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Posted: Jul 19, 2011 7:07 AM
Asian ministers discuss South China Sea, security

Territorial disputes and flare-ups in the South China Sea were expected to take center stage at Asia's largest security forum this week, after Vietnam and the Philippines accused China of interfering in efforts to explore for oil and gas.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono noted ahead of closed-door talks that it's been nine years since the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China agreed to negotiate a code of conduct in the potentially resource-rich waterway.

"Things do not necessarily have to be this slow," he said, adding "some progress" was long-overdue.

He said ASEAN needed to signal strongly to the world that the situation in the sea, a strategical shipping lane, is "predictable" and "manageable."

Southeast Asian ministers _ on Indonesia's resort island of Bali for their annual get-together _ will be joined later in the week by officials from Asia-Pacific, Europe and the United States for the much more important ASEAN Regional Forum.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, now in India, will be among those attending. So will China's foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, and Pak Ui-Chun of North Korea.

Hot topics on the table include Pyongyang's nuclear crisis, the slow pace of democratic reforms in military-dominated Myanmar and its bid to take over the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014 _ something that is looking increasingly likely. They also are interested in international efforts to help end a border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand, with the U.N. international court in The Hague on Monday ordering both sides to withdraw troops around a 1,000-year-old temple along the frontier.

Overshadowing talks, however, will be conflicting claims in the South China Sea.

The sparring is primarily over the Spratlys, nearby Paracels and Scarborough Shoal, a slew of tiny, mostly uninhabited islands, some no more than a half-submerged coral reef and surrounding waters.

China claims the entire area, a large swath extending far from its southern coast and overlapping with the 230-mile (370-kilometer) exclusive economic zones of the Philippines and Vietnam and, to a lesser degree, of Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

The smaller Southeast Asian nations often look for backing from the U.S., which is eager to protect strategic shipping lanes in the waters and deepen its own military ties in the region. That only serves to further irk China.

Clinton was expected to touch on the issue, but only indirectly, sources in Washington told reporters.

Beijing has already called recent U.S. military exercises in the region inappropriate, though they were planned well before the latest dispute.

Vietnam says on two occasions since May, China cut cables used by its ships to conduct seismic tests on the sea floor. And last week, just as it appeared that temperatures were starting to cool, a Vietnamese border official alleged that Chinese soldiers chased and attacked a fishing boat and beat up the captain.

The Philippines has similar complaints, saying in March two Chinese naval ships threatened one of their ships exploring for gas in an area known as Red Bank.

Beijing, while denying cutting cables, acknowledges incidents took place in what it said was its waters.

Southeast Asian officials, who ended the first round of talks Tuesday night without any concrete decisions, are expected to hold their first direct talks with China on Wednesday.

ASEAN, founded in 1967, groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. It admitted Myanmar in 1997, despite strong opposition from Western nations.