Asean Chief Upbeat on Sea Talks, but China Differs
By NATASHA BRERETON-FUKUI, PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (WSJ): The head of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Saturday expressed confidence that the bloc was progressing toward creating a code of conduct for disputed waters, but a Chinese official appeared to refute that view.
Officials present at meetings in Cambodia stressed the need to maintain momentum in discussions on a conduct code, the aim of which is to resolve territorial tensions in the resource-rich South China Sea between Asean members and China.
Beijing has opposed efforts to settle disagreements at multilateral forums, saying it prefers to handle them on a bilateral basis. A meeting of Asean foreign ministers in July broke up without issuing a communiqué for the first time in the bloc’s history—an outcome that analysts blamed on host Cambodia’s weakness in standing up to pressure from China.
In an interview on the sidelines of the Phnom Penh gathering, Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said he believed there was a “momentum of good will” toward establishing a rulebook for tackling disputes in the waters.
“Senior officials have done their work on the elements that would eventually go into what we would call the code of conduct, and they have I think been able to revive that negotiation with the Chinese,” Dr. Pitsuwan said.
“They [Asean and China] have had some frank and candid discussions on the way forward, and that is they will continue to engage and work for the code of conduct because both [sides] believe that this would be an important instrument in helping to calm down the anxiety and the concern of all parties with direct and indirect interest.”
But at a press briefing in Beijing on Saturday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying reiterated the administration’s stance that conflicts should be settled by direct negotiations with individual governments and not involve nations that don’t have direct stakes.
“China and Asean countries have confidence that they can resolve these disputes peacefully,” she said. To other countries, she said: “If you have trust in us, you can help us, instead of taking negative steps or causing trouble. That would not be advisable.”
The South China Sea, which is crossed by more than half of the world’s total trade and is thought to contain vast energy and mineral reserves, is broadly claimed by China and in part by such nations as Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The Philippines and Vietnam have pushed Beijing to agree to a binding regional code as a framework for settling disputes. The U.S. has thrown strong support behind such a pact, and will likely continue to press for a solution in Phnom Penh.
While Asean and Chinese leaders agreed a decade ago to a draft of the code, it never was completed, in part because of China’s position that disagreements should be settled on a bilateral rather than multilateral basis.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa on Friday proposed that, in the interim, an Asean-China hotline be established to commit ministers to communicating in the event of any maritime incidents and help prevent escalation.
“I think the key word here is ‘momentum,’ ” Mr. Natalegawa told reporters in Phnom Penh on Saturday. “Indonesia is keen to make sure that we do not lapse; if we were to stand still then there could be regression,” he warned.
Thailand, as country coordinator, will propose the idea of the hotline to China, Dr. Pitsuwan said.
Mr. Natalegawa and other Asean officials also echoed Dr. Pitsuwan’s confidence about establishing a code of conduct.
In an interview, Thailand’s foreign minister, Surapong Tovichakchaiku, referred to a commitment by Beijing in October to stick with the plans for such a code, and stressed that the matter should be dealt with within the region.
“Tensions have cooled. The problem on the South China Sea, we don’t want it to be internationalized,” Mr. Surapong said.
“We have to go step by step. We don’t push too hard.”