Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

No accord in South China Sea row

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gives a speech at the Asean meeting in Cambodia (AP)
Cambodian foreign minister Hor Namhong speaks at the closing ceremony of the 45th Association of Southeast Asian Nations assembly (AP)

South-east Asian diplomats have failed to reach common ground on how to resolve a territorial dispute involving China, as a regional conference ended without a joint statement for the first time in the bloc's history.

The unprecedented failure to come up with the joint communique in 45 years of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) underscores deep divisions within the 10-member bloc amid conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea involving four of its members plus China and Taiwan.

Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan of Thailand said the Philippines and Vietnam wanted the statement to include a reference to the recent stand-off between China and the Philippines at a shoal in the South China Sea claimed by both countries.

The Philippines' foreign affairs department blamed host nation Cambodia for "consistently opposing any mention of the Scarborough Shoal at all" and for announcing that a joint communique cannot be issued.

Cambodian foreign minister Hor Namhong said his government, which has close ties with China, does not support any side in the disputes. He said the failure to issue a statement lies with all Asean members, not just Cambodia.

He told reporters: "I requested that we issue the joint communique without mention of the South China Sea dispute ... but some member countries repeatedly insisted (on) the issue of the Scarborough Shoal. I have told my colleagues that the meeting of the Asean foreign ministers is not a court, a place to give a verdict about the dispute."

Asean's members announced earlier this week that they had drafted a set of rules governing maritime rights and navigation, and procedures for when governments disagree. But China is not a member of the group and did not agree to anything.

The Asean countries presented their proposal to China at this week's conference in Cambodia's capital, though Beijing will probably want to tone down any restrictive language.

The stand-off between China and the Philippines in the Scarborough Shoal began in April when the Philippines accused Chinese fishermen of poaching in its exclusive economic zone, including the shoal. During the tensions, both sides sent government ships to the area, though both have since withdrawn vessels.

Vietnam has protested over a recent announcement by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation opening nine oil and gas lots for international bidders in areas overlapping with existing Vietnamese exploration blocks. Vietnam claims the lots lie entirely within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

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