Islands row off the agenda at East Asia summit

Summit leaders meeting in Cambodia agree to put territorial disputes on the back burner in a potential diplomatic victory for Beijing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 2:32pm

Asean leaders yesterday moved to limit their discussions of tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea - a move which could keep the issue off the agenda just as US President Barack Obama arrives in Phnom Penh to intensify Washington's push back to Asia.

Papering over differences after rancorous meetings in July, the 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations pledged to confine the dispute to direct talks between the bloc and China, rather than in bilateral talks between Beijing and rival claimants like Hanoi and Manila.

"On the Asean side, we are ready, willing and very much committed but it takes two to tango," Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan told reporters after the Southeast Asian leaders held their own talks in Phnom Penh, ahead of tomorrow's East Asia summit.

The agreement could keep the South China Sea off the summit's agenda, when Asean leaders meet eight of their counterparts from the wider region, including Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Obama, who arrived in neighbouring Thailand yesterday.

Fresh from his re-election victory earlier this month, Obama is due to arrive in Phnom Penh from Bangkok later today and is expected to raise maritime security as well as economic issues.

The Asean leaders are due to meet Wen today but will now curb discussions of the dispute in other meetings.

"The leaders decided that they would not internationalise the South China Sea issue from now on," said Kao Kim Hourn, a deputy foreign minister, adding that the Asean-China framework would be the sole venue for the dispute.

Analysts saw the agreement as a potential win for Beijing after backroom lobbying, limiting space for the US and its allies in the region to push the issue.

It also raises questions over the annual Asean regional forum on security. The closed-door event has seen both Asean and other states - including the US, Japan and South Korea - directly criticise China over its assertiveness in the South China Sea.

In a brief news conference in Bangkok with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Obama spoke of deepening ties of trade, security and democracy in the region.

Obama also defended his decision to go to Myanmar tomorrow, after visiting Phnom Penh for only a matter of hours.

"This is not an endorsement of the Burmese government," Obama said.

"This is an acknowledgement that there is a process under way inside that country."

Asean is pushing Beijing to start formal negotiations on a binding code of conduct to better manage tensions.

Pitsuwan said the grouping wanted talks on a code as soon as possible, saying it was "an issue of concern and worry to the international community".

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said consultations with Asean over the code would continue, but that the South China Sea should not be allowed to become an "obstacle" to the summit's success.

"This is not the key issue and should not be a stumbling block in China-Asean relations," he said - comments which Chinese envoys have been repeating widely behind the scenes.

Greater economic co-operation to limit the regional fallout of the international financial crisis "should be the key to the success of the East Asia Summit", he said.

Wen said en route to Phnom Penh that the Chinese economy was stabilising and that it would be an engine of growth to the world.

He is expected to hold bilateral talks with Obama tomorrow - his last before leaving office next year.