SE Asia seeks common ground on South China Sea spat

Reuters News
Posted: Jul 19, 2012 3:19 AM
SE Asia seeks common ground on South China Sea spat

By Prak Chan Thul

JAKARTA/PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Indonesia's foreign minister will detail talks by Southeast Asian states aimed at crafting a joint statement on the South China Sea dispute, which undermined a regional summit last week and underscored growing tensions over the territory.

Marty Natalegawa will hold a news conference in Jakarta on Friday after visiting Cambodia on Thursday as part of a whistle-stop tour aimed at repairing discord among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over the best way to resolve disputes in the South China Sea.

The territorial wrangle between the Philippines, Taiwan, China and Vietnam over potentially oil and gas rich areas in the South China Sea has exposed how deeply ASEAN member states have been polarized by China's rapidly expanding economic influence in the region.

But Cambodia's Foreign Minister Hor Namhong on Thursday said that some form of statement on how a number of issues involved in the dispute could be handled could be released this week.

"We, ASEAN foreign ministers, agreed in principle on a number of issues over the South China Sea issue," Hor Namhong told a brief news conference on Thursday after meeting Natalegawa , without giving details.

"I hope that by tomorrow morning, we will receive approval confirmation from all ASEAN foreign ministers in order to announce these points."

Natalegawa, before flying back to Jakarta from Phnom Penh on Thursday, said the key points of a statement had been outlined and the "basic positions" could be announced imminently if the other states were to approve.

In 2002, ASEAN and China adopted an informal code of conduct in the South China Sea to avoid conflict and ease tensions. Last week they indicated efforts to work on a formal code, although no firm commitments were made.

Bickering over how to address the increasingly assertive role of China -- an ally of several ASEAN states -- in the strategic waters of the South China Sea has placed the issue squarely as Southeast Asia's biggest potential military flashpoint.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended last week's summit and called on all parties, including China, to make clear exactly what their claims were in the South China Sea and open multilateral talks, something likely to rile Beijing, the resident superpower that prefers a bilateral approach.

The United States insists it is neutral on the issue, but having recently signed military cooperation agreements with claimant states Vietnam and the Philippines, China has become increasingly wary of its intentions.

On Thursday, China's state-run news agency Xinhua said a fishing fleet of 30 boats, including a 3,000-tonne lead boat, arrived at what China calls the Zhubi Reef in the Spratly Islands for fishing on Wednesday, almost a week after leaving port in south China's Hainan province.

The reef is claimed by Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

"Although Chinese fishermen have fished in the South China Sea for centuries, the size of the fishing fleet makes it a rarity," Xinhua said.

ASEAN included Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

(Writing by Martin Petty; Additional reporting by Neil Chatterjee; Editing by Ed Lane)