by Staff Writers
Phnom Penh (AFP) Nov 18, 2012
Southeast Asian nations urged China on Sunday to quickly begin top-level talks over tense sea territorial disputes, after forging a united position on how to tackle their giant neighbour.
Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations made their bid to break the impasse over China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in Cambodia for an annual summit.
"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.
"The ASEAN side is ready and waiting for our Chinese friends to come forward."
He said the ASEAN leaders wanted to begin "more formal and official" talks on a legally binding code of conduct aimed at easing tensions in the South China Sea "as soon as possible".
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen raised the proposal with Wen during a bilateral meeting on Sunday night, however China appeared to give no ground.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters after the meeting that China wanted to continue with the current framework of lower-level negotiations that were agreed on a decade ago.
"We already have good discussions with ASEAN," Qin said.
ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan, have claims to parts of the sea, which is home of some of the world's most important shipping lanes and believed to be rich in fossil fuels.
But China insists it has sovereign rights to virtually all of the sea.
The rival claims have for decades made the sea a powderkeg issue in the region. Tensions have steadily risen over the past two years amid concerns from some ASEAN countries that China is becoming increasingly aggressive.
Efforts to secure a legally binding code of conduct involving ASEAN and China have floundered for years amid Beijing's preference for handling disputes with individual countries.
China and ASEAN signed a broad declaration in 2002 on how parties should handle their disputes over the South China Sea, in which they committed to resolve the issues peacefully and through friendly consultations.
Qin said China wanted to continue working under the framework of that agreement, commonly known as the "DOC".
"We are loyal to the DOC and we will sincerely implement the DOC with our ASEAN partners. This is our consistent position. There is no change," Qin said.
However some ASEAN countries complain that the DOC is not legally binding, and has not prevented the recent diplomatic spats.
The sea row also caused major divisions within ASEAN this year.
Cambodia, a close China ally that has held the ASEAN chair this year, resisted efforts by the Philippines and Vietnam to take a more aggressive position against the Chinese.
But in the lead-up to and during their annual summit in Phnom Penh on Sunday, ASEAN leaders emphasised their intent to present a unified stance to China.
South China Sea: a decades-long source of tension
The disputes are expected to be on the agenda during three days of talks involving the region's leaders that began in Cambodia on Sunday. Below are key facts on the sea and the competing claims:
The South China Sea covers more than 3 million square kilometres (1.16 million square miles) on the western edge of the Pacific, with China and Taiwan to the north, the Philippines to the east, Borneo island to the south, and Vietnam to the west.
It contains hundreds of small islands, islets and rocks, most of which are uninhabited. The Paracel and Spratly chains contain the biggest islands.
The sea is the main maritime link between the Pacific and Indian oceans, giving it enormous trade and military value. Its shipping lanes connect East Asia with Europe and the Middle East.
Major unexploited oil and gas deposits are believed to lie under the seabed.
The sea is home to some of world's biggest coral reefs and, with marine life being depleted close to coasts, it is becoming increasingly important as a source of fish to feed growing populations.
China and Taiwan both claim nearly all of the sea, while Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei each have often overlapping claims to parts of it.
China's claim is based on a historical map of "nine dashes" that approaches the coast of other countries. But rival countries complain the dashes are kept deliberately vague so that no one knows China's exact claims.
Beijing and most other countries know it as the South China Sea. Hanoi calls it the East Sea and Manila officially refers to it as the West Philippine Sea.
China has held all of the Paracel islands since a conflict with South Vietnam in 1974 that left 53 Vietnamese military personnel dead.
Vietnam is believed to occupy or control more than 20 of the Spratly islands and reefs, the most of any claimant.
Taiwan has a garrison controlled by its coastguard on Itu Aba island, which is called Taiping in Chinese and is the largest in the Spratlys. Taiwan announced in July it would deploy longer-range artillery there.
The Philippines occupies nine of the Spratlys, including Thitu island, the second largest in the area. The Philippines has a military presence and civilians living on Thitu, which it calls Pagasa.
China occupies at least seven of the Spratlys including Johnson Reef, which it gained after a naval battle with Vietnam in 1988.
Malaysia occupies three of the Spratlys. The most significant presence is on Swallow Reef, called Layang Layang Island in Malaysia, where it has a naval post and a diving resort.
Brunei does not occupy any land formation but claims a submerged reef and a submerged bank in the Spratlys.
TENSIONS -- CHINA/VIETNAM
Aside from the 1974 battle for the Paracels, the only other major conflict occurred when Vietnam and China fought a naval battle on Johnson Reef in the Spratlys in 1988 that left 70 Vietnamese military personnel dead.
However, Chinese naval vessels have fired at other times on Vietnamese fishing boats in the area.
In 2011, Vietnam accused Chinese marine surveillance vessels of cutting an oil survey ship's exploration cables, sparking nationalist protests in Vietnamese cities.
In June this year, Vietnam passed a law proclaiming its jurisdiction over all of the Paracel and Spratly islands, triggering Chinese protests.
At about the same time China announced it had created a new city, Sansha, on one of the Paracel islands, which would administer Chinese rule over its South China Sea domain.
TENSIONS -- CHINA/PHILIPPINES
In 1995, China began building structures on Mischief Reef, within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
Tensions between the two nations started to ratchet up significantly in March 2011, when Chinese vessels harassed a Philippine-chartered gas exploration vessel at Reed Bank.
The Philippines then accused the Chinese of a pattern of intimidation, including firing warning shots at Filipino fishermen and laying buoys around Philippine-claimed islets.
A stand-off between Chinese and Philippine vessels that began in April this year at Scarborough Shoal further inflamed tensions. Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario accused China of "duplicity" and "intimidation".
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China adopted a non-binding "declaration of conduct" in 2002 to discourage hostile acts.
But attempts to turn it into a legally binding "code of conduct" have failed.
The dispute has created divisions within ASEAN. A meeting of foreign ministers in July ended for the first time in the bloc's 45-year history without a joint statement because of infighting over the issue.
Meeting host Cambodia, a China ally, rejected a Philippine push for the statement to take a harder line against the Chinese.
* Data drawn from AFP's archives, International Crisis Group reports and www.globalsecurity.org.
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