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ASEAN vexed by South China Sea disputes as Phnom Penh backs Beijing

AFP-JIJI, Kyodo

Southeast Asian nations were battling Sunday to find a compromise on how to deal with Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, with Cambodia lobbying hard for Beijing, diplomats said.

Foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) failed to release a joint statement as scheduled Saturday evening, and tense follow-up negotiations the next morning could still not end the standoff, two diplomats involved in the talks said.

Beijing claims nearly all of the South China Sea, including waters approaching the coasts of ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

The tense talks came after Vietnam, which also claims parts of the strategically vital sea, insisted that tough language be inserted into the statement expressing concern over Chinese land reclamation in the contested waters.

Cambodia, one of China’s strongest allies within ASEAN, firmly resisted the push, according to diplomats involved in the talks in the Philippine capital, as well as an excerpt of a Cambodia-proposed resolution obtained Sunday.

“Vietnam is adamant and China is effectively using Cambodia to champion its interests,” one of the diplomats said.

“But the Philippines is trying very hard to broker compromise language.”

China has in recent years expanded its presence in the sea by building artificial islands capable of supporting military bases.

Tensions over the sea have long vexed ASEAN, which operates on a consensus basis but has had to balance the interests of rival claimants and those more aligned to China.

While senior officials pressed on with negotiations on the maritime dispute Sunday, ASEAN’s foreign ministers began a round of separate meetings with their counterparts from China, the U.S. and other Asia-Pacific nations.

ASEAN and China were due to approve a framework for a code of conduct on Sunday on how to deal with sea dispute.

Analysts have cautioned not to place too much significance on the agreement for a framework. They say it comes 15 years after negotiations on the issue first began, a period in which China has moved to cement its claims with the artificial islands, and that an actual code likely remained many years away.

Jose Tavares, director-general for ASEAN Cooperation at the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, said formal negotiations for a code of conduct aimed at easing tensions in the disputed sea are expected to be launched after the leaders’ summit in November, which will also be held in the Philippines, this year’s regional bloc chair.

The two-page framework document contains a provision stating that it is not an instrument to settle territorial disputes or maritime delimitation issues. It does, however, have general headings on prevention and management of incidents, although they do not yet include explanatory notes on how those measures would be achieved.

The framework was agreed on by senior diplomats from ASEAN and China in the southwestern Chinese city of Guiyang in May.

A code of conduct has long been discussed, with the two parties agreeing in 2002 on a loose set of guidelines on behavior in the South China Sea which became known as the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the region.

Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines, said he believes the document does not constitute major progress, noting it is merely a list of topics.

“On that kind of listing it would be surprising if they don’t come to an agreement. I mean it’s really very insubstantial anyway,” he said, expressing doubts that ASEAN and China will be able to come up with anything concrete in the next few years.

Diplomats said they were still hoping the joint ASEAN statement that was meant to be released on Saturday will be agreed upon before all the other meetings hosted by the bloc ended on Tuesday.

Also on the sidelines of the meeting, the Philippines was trying to release a statement suggesting it does not want U.S. involvement in dealing with territorial disputes in the South China Sea, a draft copy has shown.

The draft of the chairman’s statement urges nonclaimant nations to “exercise restraint and prudence in further efforts in expanding military operations and activities” in the disputed sea.

The part of the drafted statement appears to be taking so-called freedom of navigation operations by the United States into consideration.

It remains unclear whether the document will be released in its current form.