Southeast Asian Leaders Aim to Patch Maritime Rifts


Bandar Seri Begawan. Southeast Asian leaders will focus on rebuilding unity when they meet in Brunei this week after unprecedented rifts over how to handle territorial disputes with an assertive China.

The summit of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) convenes against the backdrop of China’s increasingly aggressive stance in claiming sovereignty over nearly all of the resource-rich South China Sea.

Asean members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan, also claim parts of the sea, which lies at the heart of the region.

But a push last year by the Philippines and Vietnam for Asean to join forces and stand up to China crumbled amid resistance from Cambodia, a close Chinese ally that held the rotating chair of the bloc in 2012.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa emphasized ahead of the two-day summit beginning Wednesday in Brunei’s capital Bandar Seri Begawan that Asean must put up a united front on the South China Sea.

“Asean can only influence developments if we are strong… we need to be on the same page,” Natalegawa told AFP.

Brunei has said one of its priorities as this year’s Asean chair is to see a legally binding code of conduct on the sea agreed between the group and China by the end of year, more than a decade after it was first proposed.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino will push at the summit for an “early conclusion” of the code, foreign ministry spokesman Raul Hernandez told reporters in Manila last week.

Natalegawa said earlier this month that foreign ministers from Asean and China will hold a special meeting to hasten progress on a code of conduct, but no further details have been announced.

But analysts said an agreement was highly unlikely this year, given stalling from China which prefers to negotiate directly with individual countries rather than a united Asean bloc.

“No one should be expecting any kind of breakthrough on the code of conduct at the coming meeting,” Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, told AFP.

“China’s position is that it is not ready to talk with Asean about the South China Sea… if China does not want to move forward, nothing will as far as the code of conduct is concerned.”

Feuds over how to deal with China overshadowed most senior-level Asean meetings last year. The highest tensions came at a foreign ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh in July, which ended for the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history without a joint communique.

Philippine foreign ministry spokesman Hernandez said Asean had put last year’s rifts behind it, but observers said the dynamics that led to the infighting had not changed.

“The wounds from last year have yet to fully heal,” a Southeast Asian diplomat who asked not to be named, told AFP.

The Philippines and Vietnam are the most vocal critics of China, while Laos and Cambodia are regarded as Beijing’s staunchest allies in Asean.

The South China Sea has immense regional and global importance because it is believed to sit atop huge deposits of oil and gas, while also being home to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

China insists it owns nearly all of the sea, even waters approaching the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

The rival claims have for decades caused tensions, with China and Vietnam involved in deadly military confrontations in 1974 and 1988 over islands in the region.

The temperature has risen again in recent years as China has become increasingly assertive in staking its claim.

The Philippines last year accused China of occupying a shoal about 220 kilometres (136 miles) from its main island of Luzon.

China’s rivals grew more nervous in late March when China announced its navy had carried out wide-ranging patrols of the sea, with its ships reaching as far as 80 kilometers from Malaysia’s coast.

One of the other main issues expected to be tackled in Brunei is establishing an Asean Economic Community by 2015.

The summit will go ahead without Malaysian premier Najib Razak, who is sending a lower-ranking official so he can concentrate on campaigning for expected close elections set for May 5.








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