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International Relations

Sea dispute lingers at ASEAN summit

The ASEAN summit of Southeast Asian nations in Cambodia failed to resolve long-festering territorial disputes in the region's resource-rich South China Sea, setting the stage for possible further conflict.

“Long live the bonds of friendship, solidarity and cooperation between the Kingdom of Cambodia and China!” read one of several large banners welcoming Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to Phnom Penh.

China was the only country that Cambodia – its close ally – saluted in such a manner, as regional leaders poured into the capital this week for a series of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meetings, at which festering territorial disputes in the South China Sea again took center stage.

For years, the South China Sea – known to contain a wealth of untapped resources, from oil and gas, to important minerals – has been a source of friction between ASEAN countries and China, which asserts ownership over a large portion of the sea.

An anti-China protester holds a banner which reads The Nation! we are stand ready for peace, since your call!, while chanting slogans during an anti-China protest at a park in Hanoi July 22, 2012. Some hundred Vietnamese demonstrated in Hanoi on Sunday against China's moves to strengthen its claim on disputed islands in the South China Sea and its invitation to oil firms to bid for blocks in offshore areas that Vietnam claims as its territory. Hanoi has also denounced a move by China to change the administrative status of Sansha City as a way of enforcing its claims to several largely uninhabited islands, including the Paracels and Spratlys. REUTERS/Stringer (VIETNAM - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

Many countries are concerned about China's assertive claims to territory in the region

China, Taiwan and ASEAN members Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei also claim sometimes overlapping parts of the sea, where clashes and standoffs between rival claimants have escalated in recent months.

During the East Asia Summit (EAS) on Tuesday (20.11.2012) – attended by newly re-elected US President Barack Obama – Philippine President Benigno Aquino III called on claimants to join a discussion to clarify the maritime claims and find a solution.

“At no time in the contemporary history of the South China Sea has clarification and delimitation of maritime areas become more urgent and imperative than they are now,” President Aquino said in a statement issued by the Philippine delegation.

Key declarations left hanging

However, as the summits concluded and the 10-year anniversary of ASEAN and China's signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) passed, the future of a joint code of conduct (COC) intended to bolster non-confrontational behavior in the sea was left hanging in the air.

Although ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan told reporters that the bloc was ready for formal talks with China on a Code of Conduct, intra-ASEAN discord was also apparent.

An airstrip is built on the islet of 'Pag-asa', one of Spratlys' group of islands in the South China Sea, where Filipino soldiers are guarding but five other countries are laying claim on, 02 May 2008. The Arroyo government is under fire for supposedly selling out Philippine territory through the Spratlys oil exploration deal with China and Vietnam. EPA/FRANCIS R. MALASIG +++(c) dpa - Report+++

The resource-rich waters around the Spratly Islands are a bone of contention

After ASEAN, summit chair Cambodia commented that the bloc had agreed not to “internationalize” the dispute. The Philippines – a US ally – declared that this was not their understanding and that two other countries agreed with them. Overall, analysts say that achieving a consensus within ASEAN on the South China Sea is proving difficult.

Sarah McDowall, Asia-Pacific senior analyst at IHS Global Insight, told DW via email that while recent tensions had renewed the incentive to work toward a code, the issue was complex. “None of the claimants are showing any inclination to soften their stance,” she said.

Speaking to reporters after the EAS, Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fu Ying, said Prime Minister Wen made it clear that China's defense of its territory was “necessary and legitimate”.

Analysts critical

Carlyle Thayer, a political science professor at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia and expert on Southeast Asia, told DW that ASEAN and China would “dillydally” over implementing the Declaration of Conduct..

U.S. President Barack Obama (C) smiles as he poses for a photo with (L-R) Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, China's Premier Wen Jiabao and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard before the gala dinner for head of states participating in the 21st ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and East Asia summits in Phnom Penh November 19, 2012. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj (CAMBODIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

The US has called for a multilateral dialogue, but China wants bilateral agreements

“If ASEAN members cannot take a unified stance on a matter that affects one of its members, then it indicates it has not yet built up a sense of community among its members,” Thayer said.

China, for its part, has expressed a desire to deal with the maritime disputes bilaterally, while others – including the United States – have advocated a multilateral approach.

McDowall noted that conflict within ASEAN was playing into China's hands. “[Beijing] wants to negotiate with these countries bilaterally because individually they are much weaker,” she said.

ASEAN includes Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei.

ASEAN at loggerheads

Disagreements over the handling of the South China Sea issue have played out at successive ASEAN summits this year, culminating in the bloc's failure to finalize a customary joint communiqué in Phnom Penh in July – a first in its 45-year history.

US Navy sailors stand on the Seventh Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge upon its arrival in Danang, Vietnam, 23 April 2012. Vietnam and the US will participate in a five day naval exchange in Danang from 23 to 27 April 2012. The goodwill exchange activities which focus on non-combatant events and skills exchanges, as tensions between Vietnam and China continue to rise over the much disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. EPA/LUONG THAI LINH
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The US Navy has even conducted maritime maneuvers with its former enemy Vietnam

At the time, the Philippines said Cambodia opposed mentioning talks about the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the communiqué, despite backing from several ASEAN countries and the group's Secretariat, and announced that the statement could not be issued.

The incident dented ASEAN's credibility, and observers suggested that Cambodia was pushing the interests of China, which has poured loans and investment into Cambodia in recent years.

Thayer said Cambodia was playing a “spoiling” role. “ASEAN has set 2015 as the deadline for becoming an ASEAN Community based on three pillars - political security, economics and socio-cultural [heritage] and clearly Cambodia does not identify itself as part of the first pillar,” Thayer noted.

With maritime tensions having deepened throughout the past year, some have emphasized that consensus is more crucial than ever. However, analysts say the latest skirmishes only underline the chink in ASEAN's armor.

“Recent events underscore the inherent weakness of ASEAN, which has to take the position of lowest common denominator owing to the many differences among member countries,” McDowall said, warning that “the fault lines which became apparent at this week's ASEAN summit signal a continuation of the status quo."

DW.DE