ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and China should hasten talks for a long-pursued code of conduct to govern actions in the fraught South China Sea, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said today.
A resolution of the dispute will send a “strong signal” to the world that the situation in the resource-rich region, seen by analysts as a potential flashpoint, is predictable and would contribute to regional stability, he said.
The Indonesian leader noted that it took ASEAN and China 10 years to agree on a declaration for a code of conduct, and they have been discussing the guidelines to implement the code for another nine years without agreement.
China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan have overlapping claims to parts of the South China Sea including the Spratly islands.
The area is believed to be rich in oil and gas and is a crucial route for global shipping trade. The United States has defense pacts with Taiwan and the Philippines and claims a “national interest” in the free movement of shipping.
Tensions have escalated in recent weeks, with the Philippines and Vietnam protesting over what they say are increasingly forceful Chinese actions in the area, which Beijing claims in whole based on disputed historical grounds.
ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said the foreign ministers were expected to discuss the South China Sea issue today.
Recent incidents include Chinese forces allegedly opening fire on Filipino fishermen, shadowing an oil exploration vessel employed by a Philippine firm and putting up structures in areas claimed by the Philippines.
Vietnam voiced anger after a Chinese vessel cut the exploration cables of a Vietnamese survey ship in May, and Beijing condemned US-Vietnam naval exercises that began last week off Vietnam’s coast.
China staged its own military exercises in the South China Sea in June and announced plans to boost its offshore maritime patrol force.
Not to be left out, Taiwan has said it is considering deploying missile boats in the waters and tanks on disputed islands.
China wants to negotiate bilaterally with individual ASEAN claimants, while ASEAN wants to deal with China as a group. Beijing opposes ASEAN’s position because it will “internationalise” the issue.
US Secretary of State State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi will attend the ASEAN Regional Forum.