PHNOM PENH — Senior ministers from Southeast Asia continue to push forward on delicate negotiations on the South China Sea during this week’s high-level regional meetings in Cambodia. But delegates to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ministers’ meetings on Wednesday appeared to reach a stumbling block.
Delegates have publicly downplayed tensions about the South China Sea dispute. But officials acknowledged Wednesday there was disagreement from some members over the wording of a joint ASEAN statement on the issue.
Marty Natalegawa is Indonesia’s foreign minister.
“At the same time there is a parallel process – parallel and yet interlinked – on how to capture ASEAN’s views on the recent developments in the South China Sea. The recent worrying developments in the South China Sea,” he said.
ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia all claim parts of the South China Sea. This puts them at odds with China, which also claims a large swath of the body of water.
Standoffs in the area in recent months, including an April incident between a Philippines warship and Chinese vessels, have added a sense of urgency to this week’s negotiations.
“We simply, we need to capture how we feel in terms of what the situation has been in the past, but more importantly to more forward. It’s very important for us to express our concern with what had happened, whether it be at the shoals, whether it be at the continental shelves …, but more importantly than simply responding to the past is to move forward to ensure that these kinds of events no longer recur,” he said.
The debate coming into this week’s meetings was how ASEAN members would go about presenting a united approach to negotiations on a long awaited Code of Conduct with China. ASEAN ministers announced this week they had moved forward with “key elements” of a code of conduct, yet even this appears unlikely to satisfy all parties.
The Philippines for example, has long insisted on including a dispute mechanism within the code. China, on the other hand, has made it clear that it wants to settle territorial disagreements on a one-on-one basis.
Hammering out a code of conduct may reaffirm each party’s ultimate goal of cooling down tensions and avoiding armed conflict. But whether it represents a long-term solution to the disagreements is questionable.
Still, ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said bloc members realize how important it is to resolve the maritime dispute while it’s in the public eye.
“Issues of South China Sea is certainly one issue that I think they want to explore further,” he said. “The issues and the ways in which to handle because the world is paying attention to us, because the world is expecting some soothing message, message of confidence, message of hope out of here that we are indeed working together in order to manage the situation. So I think in good faith, in good will, we want to be better prepared.”
The ASEAN meetings reach a peak with Thursday’s ASEAN Regional Forum, which will include senior delegates from the bloc’s many dialogue partners, including the United States.