China and Southeast Asian countries agreed on Wednesday to a preliminary set of guidelines in the South China Sea dispute, the Chinese side said, a rare sign of cooperation in a row that has plagued relations in the region for years.
But a broader accord on which country owns what in waters believed to be rich in gas and oil remains as far off as ever.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono urged ASEAN and China to step up their efforts to reach an agreement. “We need to send a strong signal to the world that the future of the South China Sea is a predictable, manageable and optimistic one,” he said in a speech opening the Bali meeting on Tuesday.
Conflicts and accusations
Tensions have been rising in the oil-and gas-rich South China Sea in recent weeks after Vietnam and the Philippines accused China of incursions into sensitive areas and harassment of ships.
China and the Philippines have overlapping claims to parts of the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands, as do Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
China has increased activities around the Spratly Islands and other disputed areas
Manila had suggested that the Philippines and China bring the dispute before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, an independent judicial body set up by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982.
China, however, rejected the suggestion, preferring to deal with the issue bilaterally.
The Philippines Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario said Manila wants the UN to define which parts of the sea are disputed and which are not, adding that it is vital to delineate the disputed areas before discussing guidelines to implement a long-discussed “code-of-conduct” to govern actions in the area.
In 2002, ASEAN and China agreed on a non-binding declaration committing the parties to settling the disputes peacefully and respecting the status quo. Natalegawa said the next step would be to establish a code of conduct for the countries involved, warning that if left unresolved, the disputes could create further divisions in the Asia Pacific region.
China has insisted that the disputes should be settled one-on-one, while ASEAN wants to deal with China as a group. Beijing opposes ASEAN’s position because it will “internationalize” the issue and urged the US not to get involved. Both Vietnam and the Philippines have been looking to Washington to support their case.
China is Myanmar’s closest ally
Some diplomats said Beijing was seeking the support of allies within ASEAN, including Laos and Myanmar, to persuade the group to avoid taking a hard stance. “Chinese leaders can’t be seen to be weak on this issue because of the backlash they will get within the country, said Ian Storey, a fellow of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
An upcoming meeting on Saturday is to bring together the foreign ministers from 27 countries, including ASEAN, China and the US, grouped under the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the largest security forum in the region.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi will attend the ARF.
Autor: Ziphora Robina (AFP, dpa, Reuters)
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