Sunday, 15 July 2012

U.S. to ASEAN: 'Take a stand on territorial dispute which can threaten all of you'

Friday, July 13. 2012

by Michaela del Callar

MANILA — United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to take a stand on the three-month impasse between China and the Philippines at the Bajo de Masinloc, warning that such territorial dispute could eventually threaten all 10 members of the regional bloc. 

“What might be a challenge today for some of ASEAN’s members, if left unaddressed by all of ASEAN, could lead tomorrow to issues that may become problems for (the rest of) other ASEAN members,” the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) quoted Clinton as saying during the ASEAN-U.S. ministerial meeting in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh on Wednesday.
It was the first major call on the ASEAN, which is currently led by Cambodia, to take a clearer and stronger stand on the long-simmering territorial rift in the West Philippines Sea, also known as South China Sea, which involves four ASEAN members -- Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
China and Taiwan are also involved in the dispute, which has long been feared as Asia’s next potential flashpoint for a major armed conflict.

Beijing virtually claims the whole of South China Sea, which is dotted by clusters of islands, cays, shoals and reefs, and teems with rich fishing areas. The vast sea is also believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits and is regarded as among the world’s most strategic and busiest waterways.
Clinton also urged the ASEAN to act fast and finalize a regional Code of Conduct, a proposed legally binding pact with China that aims at preventing the territorial conflict from degenerating into armed confrontation by enacting rules that would discourage aggression.

Cambodia, a key ally of China, has been hosting the week-long annual ASEAN ministerial meetings as chairman of the bloc, which also includes Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.
ASEAN has been criticized for failing to take stronger and rapid steps to ease the territorial conflict in the South China Sea. The Philippines has urged the bloc to speak up after Filipino vessels figured in a dangerous standoff with Chinese ships at the Bajo de Masinloc, also known as Scarborough Shoal, last April 10.

But the dispute at the shoal dragged on for months without ASEAN collectively issuing any statement. ASEAN, through Cambodia, has to issue a joint communiqué on different issues after this week’s ministerial meetings that are expected to touch on the South China Sea conflicts.
ASEAN members have been seen by analysts as having been divided in their political alliances between Asian powerhouse China and the United States, which has been trying to reassert its presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Cambodia, which has received huge economic assistance and investments from China, has promised to be an impartial chairman of the ASEAN meetings despite concerns it would toe Beijing’s line on most issues, including the South China Sea territorial row.

The Philippines and Vietnam, on the other hand, have separately increased their military engagements with Washington as they confronted China in fresh territorial incidents in the disputed waters.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who is leading the Philippine delegation in Phnom Penh, told fellow ASEAN ministers “that the current situation in the West Philippine Sea deserves urgent attention from ASEAN because it has direct impact on unimpeded commerce and freedom of navigation in the region,” the DFA said in a statement issued in Manila.

Del Rosario said the territorial conflicts should be resolved through a United Nations maritime treaty signed by the Philippines, China and 162 other governments for any solution to gain international recognition and respect.

“The adherence of all countries in the region to a set of fair and transparent rules, as embodied in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, will generate greater mutual trust and respect in the region,” Del Rosario said.

UNCLOS gives maritime states the right to develop, explore and exploit areas up to 200 nautical miles from its shores - coastal waters the U.N. treaty calls Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of a country like the Philippines.

China has frowned on bringing the territorial dispute to any international arena or forum such as the ASEAN, preferring to negotiate with each of the other rival claimants in the South China Sea.
The Philippines, along with the United States, has taken steps to raise the issue in multilateral fora.
The ASEAN-US meeting in Phnom Penh Wednesday was jointly presided by Del Rosario and Clinton.

During the meeting, Clinton said that Washington “looks to ASEAN and claimant States to provide leadership in this issue and recognize the important role of the (ASEAN) chair to find consensus and advance a common ASEAN position,” the DFA said.

“ASEAN needs to meet its own goals and standards and be able to speak with one voice on issues facing the region,” the DFA quoted Clinton as saying. (PNA)

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