Wed, Jul 20, 2011 - Page 1 News List

South China Sea to overshadow ASEAN summit


Territorial disputes and flare-ups in the South China Sea were expected to take center stage at Asia’s largest security forum this week, after Vietnam and the Philippines accused China of interfering in efforts to explore for oil and gas.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said ahead of closed-door talks that it’s been nine years since the 10-member ASEAN and China agreed to negotiate a code of conduct in the potentially resource-rich waterway.

“Things do not necessarily have to be this slow,” he said, adding “some progress” was long overdue.

He said ASEAN needed to signal strongly to the world that the situation in the sea, a strategic shipping lane, is “predictable” and “manageable.”

Southeast Asian ministers — on Indonesia’s resort island of Bali for their annual get-together — will be joined later in the week by officials from the Asia-Pacific, Europe and the US for the much more important ASEAN Regional Forum.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, now in India, will be among those attending. So will Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪) and North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun.

Hot topics on the table include Pyongyang’s nuclear crisis, the slow pace of democratic reforms in military-dominated Myanmar and its bid to take over the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014 — something that is looking increasingly likely. Overshadowing talks, however, will be conflicting claims in the South China Sea.

The sparring is primarily over the Spratly Islands (南沙群島), nearby Paracel Islands (西沙群島) and Scarborough Shoal (黃岩島), a slew of tiny, mostly uninhabited islands, some no more than a half-submerged coral reef and surrounding waters.

China claims the entire area, a large swath extending far from its southern coast and overlapping with the 370km exclusive economic zones of Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

The smaller Southeast Asian nations often look for backing from the US, which is eager to protect strategic shipping lanes in the waters and deepen its own military ties in the region. That only serves to further irk China.

Clinton was expected to touch on the issue, but only indirectly, sources in Washington said.

Beijing has already called recent US military exercises in the region inappropriate, though they were planned well before the latest dispute.

Vietnam says on two occasions since May, China cut cables used by its ships to conduct seismic tests on the sea floor. And last week, just as it appeared that temperatures were starting to cool, a Vietnamese border official alleged that Chinese soldiers chased and attacked a fishing boat and beat up the captain.

The Philippines has similar complaints, saying in March two Chinese naval ships threatened one of their ships exploring for gas in an area known as Red Bank.

Beijing, while denying cutting cables, acknowledges incidents took place in what it said was its waters.

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