PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Southeast Asian leaders decided Sunday to ask China to start formal talks “as soon as possible” on crafting a legally binding accord aimed at preventing an outbreak of violence in disputed South China Sea territories, a top diplomat said.
Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations made the decision during their annual summit in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said.
The South China Sea territorial disputes, which many fear could spark Asia’s next war, have overshadowed discussions at the summit, where the top agenda items included human rights and expanding an Asian free-trade area.
Four countries in the 10-member ASEAN — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — have been locked in long-unresolved territorial rifts with China and Taiwan in the resource-rich waters, where a bulk of the world’s oil and cargo passes. Since Chinese and Vietnamese naval forces engaged in deadly clashes in the region in the 1970s, the disputes have settled into an uneasy standoff.
But fresh territorial spats involving China, Vietnam and the Philippines starting last year have set off calls for ASEAN and China to turn a nonaggression accord they signed in 2002 to a stronger, legally-binding “code of conduct” aimed at discouraging aggressive acts that could lead to dangerous confrontations or accidental clashes in the busy region.
ASEAN member countries have submitted features they each want to see in such an accord and were now ready to sit as a bloc to discuss with China how the agreement could be drafted. The crucial talks could start immediately, even right after the Cambodia summit, according to Surin.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, host of this year’s summit, would convey the bloc’s decision to his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiabao, who would fly to Cambodia later Sunday to join expanded ASEAN meetings in the next two days.
“They would like to see the commencement of the discussion as soon as possible because this is an issue of interest, concern and worry of the international community,” Surin told reporters. “It’s an issue between ASEAN and China to resolve together … It needs two to tango.”
U.S. President Barack Obama, would also fly to Cambodia to attend on Tuesday the so-called East Asia Summit, an annual forum where ASEAN leaders and their counterparts from eight other nations, including China and the United states, would discuss security and economic concerns. Washington has backed calls for the drafting of a South China Sea nonaggression pact.
It’s unclear how China would respond, with ASEAN diplomats saying they have gotten unclear signals from Chinese officials.
Vietnam and the Philippines have separately accused China since last year of intruding into South China Sea islands, reefs and waters they claim and of disrupting their oil explorations well within their territorial waters. China, which claims virtually the entire South China Sea, has dismissed the protests, saying those waters belonged to Beijing since ancient times.
China has sought one on one negotiations with rival nations to resolve the disputes, something that will give it advantage because of its sheer size, and has objected to any effort to bring the problem to regional or international forums like ASEAN. It has also warned Washington not to get involved but American officials have declared that the peaceful resolution of the disputes and freedom of navigation in the vast sea was in the U.S. national interest.
Obama was expected to reiterate Washington’s call for a legally-binding code of conduct in the South China Sea in Cambodia.
ASEAN leaders, meanwhile, adopted a human rights declaration on Sunday despite last-minute calls for a postponement by critics, including Washington, who said the pact contains loopholes that can allow atrocities to continue.
ASEAN, an unwieldy collective of liberal democracies and authoritarian states, signed a document adopting the Human Rights Declaration in Phnom Penh. The nonbinding declaration calls for an end to torture, arbitrary arrests and other rights violations that have been longtime concerns in Southeast Asia, which rights activists once derisively described as being ruled by a “club of dictators.”
ASEAN diplomats have called the declaration a milestone in the region despite its imperfections, saying it will help cement democratic reforms in countries such as Myanmar, which until recently has been widely condemned for its human rights record.
Founded in 1967 as an anti-communist bloc in the Cold War era, ASEAN has taken feeble steps to address human rights concerns in the vast region of 600 million people. It adopted a charter in 2007 where it committed to uphold international law and human rights but retained a bedrock principle of not interfering in each other’s internal affairs – a loophole that critics say helps member states commit abuses without consequence.
During the summit, the leaders are expected to announce the start of negotiations for an expanded free-trade area involving ASEAN member countries and six regional economic powerhouses that include China but excludes the United States, which is promoting a separate free-trade arrangement involving Asia-Pacific nations.
ASEAN leaders meanwhile agreed that implementation of an ambitious ASEAN Economic Community will be slightly delayed.
Delegates explained to the press after a plenary meeting Sunday that the AEC will be launched at the end of 2015 — December 31 — rather than on Jan. 1, 2015 as originally envisioned.
The community, roughly similar to the EC, would integrate the diverse nations’ economies, covering trade, investment and other measures.
Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said the meeting’s chairman, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, had proposed the later starting date, and won the approval of all members.
He said the ASEAN Economic Minister’s Meeting had earlier agreed the implementation could begin on Jan. 1, 2015, but that the leaders agreed Sunday that much work had yet to be done. “ASEAN is more concerned about substance than the date,” he said.
Vietnamese PM vows to support Cambodia for successful ASEAN Summit
PHNOM PENH, Nov. 17 — Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said here Saturday that his country will cooperate with Cambodia in all matters in order to ensure the success of the forthcoming 21st ASEAN Summit.
Dung made the remarks during a one-hour meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, Eang Sophalleth, personal spokesman for Prime Minister Hun Sen, told reporters after the meeting.
He said the Dung promised that his delegation will “cooperate with Cambodia in every issue in order to bring the 21st ASEAN Summit to a successful conclusion,” he said.
Dung also expressed his satisfaction with the bilateral ties between Vietnam and Cambodia, especially in agriculture, trade and investment.
While thanking Dung for his assertion to support Cambodia for a successful ASEAN Summit, Hun Sen said he agreed that the two neighbors have had good relations in trade and investment besides politics, and he believed that the ties will be further enhanced in the future.
Dung is in Cambodia to attend the 21st ASEAN Summit and related Summits to be held at the Peace Palace during Nov. 18-20.
The Summits will bring together all ASEAN leaders and ASEAN’s dialogue country leaders including newly re-elected U.S. President Barack Obama, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will be unable to attend the forthcoming Summits because he has the most important obligations to do in his country, Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said Thursday.
Founded in 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ( ASEAN) groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Aquino urges Asean not to use economic pressure to solve territorial row
PHNOM PENH–In a message that seemed directed at China, President Benigno Aquino III on Monday told other leaders here that economic pressure should not be used as an approach to resolve mounting territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Addressing other heads of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) at the 15th Asean-Japan Summit, one of the side meetings at the 21st Asean Summit, Aquino said negotiations to solve territorial spats in the region must be founded on the rule of law, not economic coercion.
“We must all work to ensure that mechanisms are in place, and are utilized to resolve tensions; that economic pressure, which can sometimes be perceived as coercive, is not used as an approach to settle disputes,” he said.
Aquino appeared to be alluding to what some analysts had described as China’s “coercive economic diplomacy” vis-a-vis weaker nations in staking its claims over virtually the whole West Philippine Sea.
Early this year, China began imposing stringent quarantine requirements on Philippine tropical fruit, coinciding with a series of territorial spats between the two countries over pockets of the West Philippine Sea, or the South China Sea.
Some commentators called the episode the “Banana War” between the two countries.
Chinese travel agencies also reportedly suspended tour packages to the Philippines at the height of a months-long standoff between Chinese and Filipino maritime ships over the disputed Scarborough shoal west of Zambales.
In his statement, Aquino first praised Japan, another country that has tussled with China over territories in the South China Sea, for rebuilding itself “from the ashes of war” in only the span of a few generations.
“As our shared experience might show, growth begins–and is sustained–by ensuring that rules are clearly articulated and followed. This is the same principle that will redound to our communal benefit in the conduct of interstate relations,” he said.
Aquino then proceeded to assert the Philippine position that all the parties with claims in the West Philippine Sea must respect the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), which conflicted with China’s “nine-dash claim” over the area.
“The rule of law, such as that enshrined in the Unclos, must therefore be the bedrock of engagement with other members of the community of nations,” he said.
The Philippines, Aquino added, “will continue to uphold this principle in its engagement with Asean, Japan, and other stakeholders, as the region strives to resolve overlapping maritime claims.”
The UNCLOS sets the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to up to 200 nautical miles from the coast in which states have the right to explore and exploit natural resources but allow freedom of navigation and overflight to others.
The Philippines has bickered with China over certain isles and reefs in the vicinity of the Spratly chain, as well as over the Scarborough shoal, that fall within the former’s EEZ and conflict with the latter’s nine-dash claim.
The nine-dash claim is China’s delineation of its territory in the South China Sea, with nine dashes on the map that enclose all of the Spratly group of islands, parts of which are claimed by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.
The Philippines has filed a protest with the United Nations challenging China’s nine-dash claim that encompasses the whole West Philippine Sea. Scarborough Shoal lies north of the Spratlys, 120 kilometers off Zambales province on the western coast of Luzon.
The West Philippine Sea is home to some of the world’s most important shipping lanes and believed to sit atop vast natural resources, a potential military flash point.
The maritime tensions are expected to dominate talks here among Asean leaders and regional partners, including US President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
Asean groups Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.