Asean nations voiced alarm yesterday over increasing tensions in the South China Sea after Vietnam and the Philippines squared up to Beijing over the disputed waters.
In a statement issued yesterday, foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations who gathered ahead of a leaders' summit today urged "all parties concerned ... to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions that could undermine peace and stability in the area".
Philippine President Benigno Aquino said yesterday that he would raise his country's territorial dispute with China at the meeting and call for support to resolve the conflict through international arbitration, which Beijing has repeatedly rejected.
China has instead called for bilateral talks with each claimant.
Tensions over the South China Sea continued to escalate yesterday, with Philippine officials saying they had jailed pending trial 11 Chinese fishermen caught with endangered sea turtles off a disputed shoal in the sea.
Manila rejected Beijing's demand for the men to be freed.
On the other side of the South China Sea, near the Paracel Islands 120 kilometres off the coast of Vietnam, Hanoi and Beijing are engaged in a stand-off over China's drilling for oil.
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Both countries accuse the other of ramming their ships in the area, in the worst setback in Sino-Vietnamese ties in years.
Asean Secretary General Le Luong Minh, who is Vietnamese, said yesterday recent disputes added urgency to concluding Sino-Asean talks on agreeing a code of conduct in the resource-rich sea to ease tensions.
The Philippine National Police on Tuesday intercepted a Chinese fishing boat carrying about 350 sea turtles off Half Moon Shoal in the Spratlys, arrested its crew and took them to the southwestern province of Palawan to face charges of violating wildlife protection laws.
Wei Min, associate professor of the Institute of Afro-Asian Studies at Peking University, said China would be the "biggest victim" if the incident was not resolved as soon as possible.
"If not, no matter what explanation the Chinese government provides, the reputation and reliability of the government will decline dramatically, and this will worsen the turbulent situation in the South China Sea."
The Chinese foreign ministry said on Friday it reserved the right to take further action over the detention of the fishermen.
At their summit, which is being held in Myanmar for the first time and ends today, Asean countries including Vietnam and the Philippines will push for a strong statement. Others, mindful of China's economic weight, may be reluctant to criticise Beijing directly, diplomats say.
Reuters, Agence France-Presse