ASEAN fails to reach common ground on China row

July 13, 2012 - 11:16 AM
Cambodia ASEAN

Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong speaks at the closing ceremony of the 45th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia Friday, July 13, 2012. (AP photo/Sakchai Lalit

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Southeast Asian diplomats failed to reach common ground Friday on how to deal with a touchy territorial dispute involving China, as a regional conference ended without a joint statement for the first time in the bloc's 45-year history.

The failure to issue a customary statement following the meeting of foreign ministers underscores deep divisions within the 10-member bloc amid conflicting territorial claims in the resource-rich South China Sea involving four of its members plus China and Taiwan.

The secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Surin Pitsuwan of Thailand, said the Philippines and Vietnam wanted the statement to include a reference to a recent standoff between China and the Philippines at a shoal in the South China Sea claimed by both countries.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs issued a statement lambasting host Cambodia for "consistently opposing any mention of the Scarborough Shoal at all" and for announcing that a joint communique cannot be issued.

According to the Philippine statement, Manila raised during the five-day conference the standoff that erupted in April between Chinese and Filipino government ships at the disputed Scarborough Shoal off the Philippines' northwest coast. It said Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario wanted the ASEAN statement to mention that the territorial rift had been discussed.

China opposes efforts to bring the South China Sea disputes into any international arena for discussions, arguing the conflicts should be tackled only between Beijing and each of the rival claimants. Vietnamese and Philippine diplomats have criticized Cambodia, which has close ties with China, for towing Beijing's line in the meetings in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said his government does not support any side in the disputes. He added that the failure to issue a statement lies with all ASEAN members, not just Cambodia. Formal statements have always followed ASEAN meetings as a sign of political unity on major issues facing the region.

"I requested that we issue the joint communique without mention of the South China Sea dispute ... but some member countries repeatedly insisted to put the issue of the Scarborough Shoal," Hor Namhong told reporters.

"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," he said.

ASEAN's members announced earlier this week that they had drafted a set of rules governing maritime rights and navigation in the South China Sea, and procedures for when governments disagree. ASEAN then would have to negotiate with China, which is not a member of the group, to finalize what many want to be a legally binding "code of conduct" to prevent armed confrontations in the disputed region.

The ASEAN countries presented their proposal to China at this week's conference, though Beijing will probably want to water down any language that ties its hands.

Del Rosario said he told foreign ministers that if left unchecked, the tensions "could further escalate into physical hostilities, which no one wants." After returning to Manila on Friday, he told reporters that the Philippines and the rest of ASEAN look forward to further discussions with Beijing.

The standoff between China and the Philippines at the Scarborough Shoal began when the Philippines accused Chinese fishermen of poaching in its exclusive economic zone, including the shoal. Both sides sent government ships to the area.

The Philippines has withdrawn its vessels from the area, but Chinese government ships have remained at the shoal, which Beijing claims to have owned since ancient times.

In the latest incident, China's Defense Ministry said a Chinese navy frigate ran aground this week while conducting patrols in a disputed part of the South China Sea near the Philippines.

A brief statement posted to the ministry's website Friday said that no injuries were reported and that a recovery operation was being mounted. It said the accident occurred Wednesday as the ship was patrolling near Half Moon Shoal. The area is about 60 nautical miles (111 kilometers) west of the Philippine province of Palawan in an area claimed by Manila.

"We have to hear from them what happened. If it is in distress, we're always ready to provide any assistance," said Philippine Brig. Gen. Elmer Amon, deputy regional commander. He said the shoal is well within Philippine territorial waters.

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

The disputed South China Sea waters host about a third of the world's cargo traffic, rich fishing grounds and vast oil and gas reserves.

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Associated Press writers Hrvoje Hranjski, Jim Gomez and Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report from Manila, Philippines.