Southeast Asian leaders were to meet in Brunei yesterday hoping to heal wounds from infighting over relations with China, while building momentum toward groundbreaking economic partnerships.
The annual summit of the 10-member ASEAN comes after the bloc suffered deep splits last year linked to territorial disputes with China over the resource-rich South China Sea.
ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as China and Taiwan, claim parts of the sea, which is also home to some of the world’s most important shipping lanes, as well as rich fishing grounds.
However, a push by the Philippines and Vietnam for ASEAN to send a united message to an increasingly aggressive China crumbled amid resistance from Cambodia, a close Chinese ally that held the rotating chair of the bloc last year.
Senior ASEAN figures emphasized ahead of the two-day summit in Brunei’s capital that the group, which for more than four decades has operated by consensus, must work hard to find common ground on the South China Sea issue.
ASEAN leaders will make a united call in an end-of-summit statement for talks with China on the issue, but they will avoid any strong language, according to a draft of the document obtained by media.
“We reaffirmed our commitment to ensuring the peaceful resolution of disputes without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law,” the draft statement said.
The draft repeated a call made regularly by Southeast Asian countries for an “early conclusion” on a legally binding code of conduct for the sea between ASEAN and China.
However, the draft made no mention of when they would hope to clinch a deal on the code.
Brunei had said one of its priorities as this year’s ASEAN chair was to see the code of conduct, initially proposed in 2002, agreed by the end of the year.
However, China, which prefers to negotiate directly with individual countries rather than a united ASEAN bloc, has refused to begin meaningful talks on the code and has given no indication it is willing to start negotiations soon.