Asean to press China for talks on new maritime code of conduct
Bloc's leaders will press Beijing to discuss adopting legally binding code of conduct on South China Sea, and North Korea's threats
Worried that long-seething rifts could escalate over the South China Sea, Southeast Asian leaders are expected this week to press China to agree to start negotiations on a new pact aimed at thwarting a major clash in one of the busiest maritime regions.
Concern over North Korea's latest threats is also expected to gain attention over economic issues at the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, being held tomorrow and Thursday in Brunei's capital, Bandar Seri Begawan.
The 10-nation bloc is scrambling to beat a deadline to transform the strikingly diverse region of 600 million people into a European Union-like community by the end of 2015.
A draft statement to be issued after the summit, a copy of which was obtained yesterday, would reaffirm Asean leaders' commitment to ensure the peaceful resolution of South China Sea conflicts in accordance with global law "without resorting to the threat or use of force".
They would call for "the early adoption of a code of conduct in the South China Sea", referring to a legally binding pact Asean would like to forge with China to replace a 2002 non-aggression accord that has failed to stop territorial skirmishes.
Mainland China, Taiwan and Asean members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping claims to parts of the South China Sea, which Beijing claims in its entirety.
The Philippines and Vietnam in particular have been at odds with China over the region in recent years, with diplomatic squabbles erupting over oil and gas exploration and fishing rights.
A tense stand-off last year between Chinese and Philippine vessels over the fishing-rich Scarborough Shoal is unresolved.
The Philippine vessels withdrew, but China has refused to pull out its three surveillance ships and remove a rope keeping Filipino fishermen from a lagoon amid Scarborough's islets.
In January, Manila challenged Beijing's massive territorial claims before an arbitration tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea - a daring legal step that China has ignored.
The tribunal has to appoint three more of five arbiters by Thursday, then start looking into the complaint if it decides it has jurisdiction.
A pre-summit meeting by Asean foreign ministers in Brunei two weeks ago was dominated by concerns over the territorial disputes and ended with a call for the early conclusion of a non-aggression pact with China, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said.
But Chinese officials have not clearly indicated when they would be ready to discuss the proposed accord.
The territorial issue has threatened Asean's unity. Cambodia, a China ally, refused to have the issue mentioned in a post-ministerial statement when it hosted the meetings last year. That drew protests from Vietnam and the Philippines, and Asean ended up not issuing a post-conference communiqué for the first time in the regional bloc's 45-year history.
China has steadfastly refused to bring the disputes to the international arena, preferring to negotiate one-on-one with each rival claimant. It has also warned Washington not to intervene in the disputes.
Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has led the tedious legwork to avoid any major hitch in the Asean summits his tiny but oil-rich kingdom hosts this year.
He has separately met United States President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping ahead of this week's summit. Last week, Bolkiah flew to Manila, partly to discuss the summit agenda with Philippine President Benigno Aquino.