Friday, 20 July 2012

ASEAN Readies Stand on Sea Row

The Southeast Asian grouping is set to make a common position on its maritime row with China.

 Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong (R) and his Indonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawa, meet for talks in Phnom Penh, July 19, 2012. 

A week after failed talks, Southeast Asian nations are poised to issue a joint statement underlining their common position on the South China Sea territorial dispute with China.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will issue the statement on Friday, Hor Namhong, the foreign minister of Cambodia, the current ASEAN chair, said after talks on Thursday with his Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa in Phnom Penh.

The 10-member ASEAN was scheduled to issue a customary joint statement incorporating the main points of its annual ministerial talks, including the hotly debated overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, last week but put it off for the first time in its 45-year history.

Cambodia, China's key Southeast Asian ally, decided against issuing the statement after the Philippines and Vietnam, which have territorial disputes with Beijing, insisted that the communique include a specific reference to Beijing's alleged encroachment in their respective exclusive economic zones and continental shelves, diplomats said.

Some ASEAN diplomats said China used its mighty influence over Cambodia to prevent any statement that may be damaging to Beijing but Hor Namhong said his government does not support any side in the dispute.

He said on Thursday "solutions" have been found by ASEAN states over the issue and "details" will be provided on Friday.

"I am ASEAN chair, I would like to have a positive results,” he said, with Indonesian minister Natalegawa beside him.


Natalegawa had taken on the role of mediator after the ministerial talks failed to reach a common position on the maritime row, visiting Hanoi and Manila before going to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh to forge a consensus on the issue.

"I have already informed the ASEAN chair about the solutions,” he said, adding that ASEAN members will strive to resolve the dispute based on international law and without use of force.

Beijing claims sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea but ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei have overlapping claims in the area, which is believed to contain vast oil and gas reserves.

A standoff at the Scarborough Shoal, a horseshoe-shaped reef in waters that both China and the Philippines claim, began earlier this year when Manila accused Chinese fishermen of poaching in its exclusive economic zone, including the shoal. Both sides had sent government ships to the area.

Vietnam has faced its own problems with China, mostly resulting from Beijing's detention of Vietnamese fishermen in disputed waters. Hanoi has also protested a recent announcement by the state Chinese oil company opening nine oil and gas lots for international bidders in areas overlapping with existing Vietnamese exploration blocks.

Solidarity threatened

ASEAN's diplomatic crisis underscores the extent to which the long-running maritime dispute has dampened solidarity within the grouping and China's expanding influence in the region as it flexes its economic and military muscle, analysts say.

The row has also held up progress on a proposed "code of conduct" between ASEAN and China aimed at preventing any armed conflicts in the contested waters.

ASEAN comprises Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Reported by Sok Serey for RFA's Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.

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