Tuesday, July 10, 2012

South China Sea dispute: Tough issue for Asean

Tuesday, 10 July 2012 11:23 Mizzima News
A thorny agenda item has appeared at the Asean foreign ministers meeting in Cambodia: a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

Cambodia's premier said on Monday tensions need to be eased between China and Asean members Vietnam and the Philippines.

As foreign ministers met in Phnom Penh, Prime Minister Hun Sen said such a code was a goal for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

China has sparred with Vietnam and the Philippines over the ownership of small islands in the South China Sea, an area that offers oil and gas reserves and strategic control over the important waterways.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Chinese counterpart will attend a conference on the sideline of the Asean meeting this week, when participants of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) meet to discuss security issues.

In his opening address, Hun Sen urged delegate’s to focus on how they might offer a code of conduct to avoid disputes, which have led to minor clashes between parties in the dispute, and to provide guidelines to resolving the territorial claims.

Hun Sen said Asean should show that it could be a “driving force for the promotion of dialogue and cooperation” on political and security issues.

“Maintaining regional peace and security is indispensable for Asean prosperity,” he said.

In the past, China has objected to a code of conduct approach, saying it preferred to deal with issues on an individual basis.

Senior diplomats are tiptoeing around the issue, afraid of offending the economic leader in Asia. One diplomat, who asked not to be named, said Asean was debating whether to mention the recent standoff between Chinese and Philippine ships in the disputed Scarborough Shoal in a joint communiqué.

Another statement, to be issued at the end of the wider ARF meeting, is expected to refer to the South China Sea issue in general terms, another diplomat said, according to wire reports.

China claims most of the South China Sea. Taiwan and Asean members the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia also have claims in the waters. Recently, China offended Vietnam by inviting bids for exploration of oil blocks in contested waters.

US Secretary of State Clinton on Sunday urged “progress” on the code of conduct in the sea.

U.S. officials have shifted their emphasis to Asia recently, becoming more prominent in visits to the region. The U.S. has repeatedly said the involvement of the U.S. and China in Asia can be a plus for the region, offering the two superpowers a chance to work together to resolve issues. Recently, the U.S. has rebuilt military relations with Asean members Philippines and Vietnam.

The South China Sea area is potentially rich in oil deposits. The Ministry of Geological Resources and Mining of the People's Republic of China estimated that the South China Sea might contain 17.7 billion tons of crude (compared to Kuwait with 13 billion tons. However, other sources claim that the proven reserve of oil in the South China Sea may only be 7.5 billion barrels, or about 1.1 billion tons.

The South China Sea is dubbed by China as the "second Persian Sea." In July 2011, China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam agreed to a set of preliminary guidelines, which would help resolve the dispute. The agreement was described by China’s assistant foreign minister, Liu Zhenmin, as "an important milestone document for cooperation among China and Asean countries.” Some of the early drafts acknowledged aspects such as "marine environmental protection, scientific research, safety of navigation and communication, search and rescue and combating transnational crime", although the issue of oil and natural gas drilling remains unresolved.

In April 2012, the Philippine warship Gregorio del Pilar was involved in a standoff with two Chinese surveillance vessels in the Scarborough Shoal, an area claimed by both nations. The Philippine navy had been trying to arrest a group of Chinese fisherman, but the surveillance boats prevented them.

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