MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines is proposing that Southeast Asian countries create a regional information-sharing system to better watch waters troubled by territorial disputes, piracy, smuggling and rapid degradation of marine resources.
Philippine officials made the proposal Wednesday at the start of a three-day maritime forum in Manila organized by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Indonesia made a similar proposal at the conference, which was attended mostly by senior diplomats and private maritime experts.
The annual conference, now in its third year, is among efforts by ASEAN’s 10 members to weld their diverse region of more than 500 million people into a European Union-like economic, political and security bloc by 2015 as a counterweight to Asian powerhouses like China.
Organizers were careful to point out that proposals like the offshore information-sharing system were not aimed at China, which some governments have accused of bullying smaller countries and aggressively asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“This forum is a platform for regional co-operation,” said Philippine Foreign Undersecretary Linda Basilio, who led the Manila conference. She said the South China Sea disputes were off the agenda.
ASEAN, founded in 1967, decides by consensus, meaning even one member can effectively block a proposal. China does not belong to the bloc, but some ASEAN members, including its current chairman, Cambodia, have close ties with Beijing.
Tensions have flared recently over territorial disputes in the region, including rival claims by China, the Philippines and Vietnam to South China Sea islands and waters that are believed to be rich in gas and oil and straddle busy shipping routes.
Two other ASEAN members — Brunei and Malaysia — also have been embroiled in South China Sea territorial rifts.
China has opposed any attempt to bring the disputes to international forums, including ASEAN, preferring to negotiate one-on-one with rival claimants. It has warned the United States, which has been reasserting its role as an Asia-Pacific power, to stay away from the sea disputes.
Despite the focus on regional co-operation, Vietnam’s delegation briefly touched on the territorial disputes in Wednesday’s conference, reiterating its adherence to a peaceful settlement of the conflicting claims.
The Philippine proposal says robust information sharing in the region will allow each country to better deal and respond to cross-border threats which would be difficult to monitor alone.
“These maritime security concerns are increasingly trans-boundary and multi-dimensional in nature,” the proposal said. “It would not be possible for one nation to single-handedly address some of these maritime challenges.”
ASEAN can tap existing information-sharing arrangements in the region, such as those dealing with sea accidents, piracy, and joint border patrols by some countries, to create an information-sharing system that adheres to international laws, according to the proposal.
Asian Nations Meet on Island Disputes
MANILA — Delegates with the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a handful of East Asian countries and other Western powers skirted controversy over the heated issue of conflicting claims in Asia-Pacific waters during a meeting this week in the Philippines.
Diplomats joined security experts, maritime officials and others to discuss regional cooperation, the protection of marine resources and trade routes at a time when there has been growing tension over territorial disputes throughout the region.
In the past year, claims in the South China Sea have come to the fore with Vietnam and the Philippines leading the push with complaints against China. And more recently, the flare-up between China and Japan over tiny outcroppings in the East China Sea has continued.
When Japan’s deputy foreign minister addressed the forum in Manila, Tsuruoka Koji made the case for creating more specific rules to deal with disputes in international waters — apart from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
“More effort should be made to establish maritime order and rules depending on characteristics of each region in accordance with relevant international laws including UNCLOS,” Tsuruoka said. “Of course, these efforts must be made through peaceful talks. We should firmly deny any idea justifying ‘might is right.’”
The dispute in the East China Sea started when Japan bought what it calls the Senkaku Islands from a private Japanese owner. China, which calls the islands Diaoyu has claimed the islands as its own. The rocks are surrounded by waters abundant in fish and potentially rich mineral deposits. The dispute has brought violent protests in China and stirred up historical resentments.
Sam Bateman, an analyst with the Australian National Center for Ocean Resources & Security, says the dispute in the East China Sea is now the main worry in the region.
“The situation over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is potentially more serious, because you’ve got bilateral, you’ve got two big countries, sort of sabre-rattling at each other,” Bateman explained. “I think the situation in South China Sea, given the relationship between China and ASEAN, economic relations, etcetera, I don’t see it breaking out into the sort of conflict which you fear.”
The disputes in the South China Sea surround mainly the Spratly Islands, which are being claimed in part or entirely by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. These waters straddle some of the world’s most heavily traveled sea lanes. They are also rich in fishing and hold potentially vast oil and gas reserves.
In these disputes, China has preferred to deal with each claimant one on one. But some of the claimants including the Philippines have pushed for multilateral talks and turning to UNCLOS to settle its disputes.
Delegates from Japan, China, South Korea, India, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and Russia attended the meeting. Apart from the Japan-China dispute, South Korea is in an island dispute with Japan.
Vietnam Deputy Foreign Minister Pham Quang Vinh said all participants have acknowledged the territorial disputes.
“And we stressed together the need for ensuring an environment of peace, stability and maritime security, including; the parties need to abide by international law and UNCLOS and show restraint so as not to allow the territorial disputes to become conflicts,” he said.
Vinh said the general feeling of the session was the need to find areas for cooperation and address “challenges” which include the disputes.
The U.S. delegate to the meeting told reporters the group had in-depth discussions on freedom of navigation, lawful commerce and lawful exploitation of resources.
Japan proposed the regional discussion last year, long before its territorial dispute with China erupted.