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Sea dispute still in limbo

Sea dispute still in limbo


A Code of Conduct governing the South China Sea remains only an “eventual” prospect, Prime Minister Hun Sen said yesterday, despite it dominating discussions during this week’s ASEAN Summit.


From the beginning of Monday’s Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, the question of China’s potential involvement in the drafting of a COC for the disputed body of water hung in the air.

But as the 20th summit wrapped yesterday at the capital’s Peace Palace, the question still lingered, leaving ASEAN nations Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam a long way from resolving conflicting claims they, China and Taiwan have to those waters.

In his role as ASEAN chairman, Hun Sen yesterday denied division among the leaders of the 10 ASEAN nations, saying they had “reaffirmed” the importance of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and would “intensify efforts” to fully implement it.

ASEAN had now resolved to “move for the eventual realisation of a regional code of conduct”, he said, adding the issue had always been on the agenda and contrary reports had resulted from a “misunderstanding”.

However, foreign ministers seemed to have different ideas as to the role China would play.

Emerging from the summit’s final meeting yesterday, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario –  the most vocal ASEAN minister on the issue this week – said he was hopeful of a completed draft of the COC this year while Cambodia still chaired ASEAN.

“The new element we’ve introduced is that the drafting of the COC and the inclusion of the major elements should actually be made by ASEAN internally before China is invited,” he said, adding the plan allowed for China to be involved “after the approval of the COC”.

“That’s the target, that’s the aspir-ation,” del Rosario added.

But he was the sole minister making such a declarative statement about ASEAN’s path.

Comments from Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, meanwhile, actually seemed to suggest room for Chinese involvement.

Natalegawa said yesterday’s discussions had centred on how to fully implement the DOC, signed by ASEAN and China in Phnom Penh a decade ago.

“There will be constant communication to the ASEAN-China framework,” he said. “So whatever final position ASEAN comes up with, would have benefited from having some kind of communication with China as well.”

While ASEAN leaders continued yesterday to praise the by-elections in Myanmar – culminating in an official call for sanctions to be lifted – tension built over North Korea’s proposed satellite launch and how it might affect stability on the Korean peninsula.

Hun Sen yesterday called for six-party talks to resume and urged all parties concerned to exercise restraint.

“We reaffirmed our support to the efforts of achieving a denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula in a peaceful manner, and we further reiterated the call for all parties concerned to explore all possibilities to engage in peaceful dialogue,” he wrote in his chairman’s statement.

“We call the parties concerned to fully respect the UN Security Council Resolutions.”

In 2009, North Korea walked out of six-party negotiations intended to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for economic aid. The US, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas are participants in the talks.

Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong, who chaired Monday’s Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, is scheduled to visit North Korea in June.

ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan said yesterday stability on the Korean peninsula was a huge concern to ASEAN leaders.

“I [also] have a standing invitation to go; we hope we can make a contribution,” he said.

Chheang Vanarith, executive director at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said Cambodia would play a key role as mediator by inviting North Korea to join the six-party talks, but ASEAN must collectively take a firm stance with the pariah state.

“I think ASEAN must put pressure on North Korea to not test the long-range missile,” he said.

In concluding yesterday’s ASEAN Summit, Hun Sen announced leaders had agreed to a drug-free ASEAN 2015 declaration and made commitments to various forms of cross-border co-operation.
Chheang Vanarith said the summit appeared to have been positive for ASEAN.

“They have been discussing security issues such as the South China Sea; economic issues, by urging to close the [distribution] gap; and social issues, as civil society and youth participated in the meeting. These are successful steps, but we will continue to monitor the implementation of [policies],” he said.


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