By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Deeper divisions could open up between Southeast Asian states and Beijing unless they do a better job of handling disputes such as a recent quarrel over the South China Sea, Indonesia's foreign minister said on Thursday.
Marty Natalegawa said Jakarta was trying to restore harmony after unprecedented arguments over the sea prevented a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN) last month from issuing a joint communique, the first time this had happened in the 10-member bloc's 45-year history.
"That's not good ... we will need to do better next time," he told Reuters in an interview during a visit to Canada.
The divisions stem from what some ASEAN members see as China's rapidly expanding influence in the region. Beijing has close relations with some ASEAN member states like Cambodia and Myanmar but there are tensions with others such as the Philippines and Vietnam. The Asian giant is not a member of the group.
China has territorial claims over a huge area of the South China Sea, including waters where the Philippines and Vietnam also claim sovereignty. At stake are potentially massive offshore oil reserves.
The area has become Southeast Asia's biggest potential military flashpoint. China and the Philippines have faced-off on a number of occasions in the disputed waters.
Natalegawa said he did not believe there was any one country in Southeast Asia or East Asia that "deliberately, with conscious aggressive intent" wanted to jeopardize peaceful international relations in the region.
"What we may have instead is a risk of miscalculation, of misperception, and action creating counter-reaction and a chain effect," he said.
Indonesia, by far the most powerful member of ASEAN, is working on a binding code of conduct for the South China Sea that would offer a guarantee that if one nation involved in a disagreement exercised restraint, the other would too.
"We have to save us from ourselves in assuming the worst of the other's intent and ending up having a self-fulfilling type of vicious circle. Now this is what Indonesia is trying to do," said Natalegawa.
"We are trying to intervene to say 'Look, stay calm and steady, let's not rush along a pathway that we don't want to go in' and avoiding this Cold War type of mentality, as if there are new fault lines."
China has yet to commit to the idea of a code of conduct, the details of which are still unclear. Natelegawa discussed the matter at a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi this month and "did not receive any negative response to my presentation of what is to come".
Natalegawa said he did not agree with the claim that China was becoming more assertive within ASEAN.
"I said (to Chinese officials) 'Look, what's going on? What's with you? Where are you coming from on this issue?' And when I hear from their world view, from their perspective, they have their own rationale and perception, as if they were caught by surprise as to what had happened at the (summit)," he said.
The arguments over the South China Sea were an unwelcome distraction for a grouping that plans to create a European Union-style economic community by 2015.
Natalegawa said he was encouraged by recent democratic reforms introduced by the military rulers of former rogue member Myanmar, which is due to chair ASEAN in 2014.
"A country that is chairing ASEAN on the eve of the ASEAN (economic) community 2015 must be more sensitive on human rights issues, on governance issues, than any one of us," he said.
"So it gives us a great deal of ... encouragement in making sure the process of reform in Myanmar is irreversible."
(Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Andrew Hay)