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November 18, 2012 3:14 pm
Southeast Asian leaders have agreed not to “internationalise” the maritime disputes in the resource-rich South China Sea, in a move that will assuage Beijing but complicate US and Japanese strategy in the region.
At a twice yearly meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations said it would only discuss the deepening territorial rows with China – excluding other nations such as the US and Japan which claim a national interest in debating regional security issues.
“The Asean leaders decided that they would not internationalise the South China Sea from now on, that they will focus this entirely within the existing Asean-China mechanisms,” said Kao Kim Hourn, a senior Cambodian official.
His comments came two days before the East Asia Summit, an international meeting that will be attended by 18 world leaders, including Barack Obama, Wen Jiabao, China’s Premier, and the prime ministers of India and Japan, Manmohan Singh and Yoshihiko Noda.
As part of its strategic pivot back to Asia, the US joined the East Asia Summit last year and has stated that it should be the major forum for the discussion of regional security issues such as the South China Sea rows. The US administration has angered Beijing by raising concerns about China’s assertive behaviour in the South and East China seas.
Diplomats said that, although some southeast Asian nations remained concerned about China’s renewed assertiveness, they were eager not to upset Beijing at a sensitive time when the Communist party’s leadership transition had just taken place.
“China is trying its best to downplay the South China Sea issue by convincing Asean countries not make it a big agenda issue at the East Asia Summit,” said one senior Asean diplomat. “They will not push the issue too much knowing that this is not the time for a big fight with China.”
Beijing has long argued that its disputes with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam in the South China Sea, and with Japan in the East China Sea, should only be discussed on a bilateral basis.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, which contains vast oil and gas reserves, sizeable fish stocks and key global trade routes.
As it has rapidly expanded its naval capabilities, it has become increasingly assertive about its territorial claims, leading to maritime clashes with Vietnam and the Philippines and pushing both countries to deepen their strategic ties with the US.
The last high-level Asean summit in July ended in disarray when Cambodia caved in to pressure from China, a close ally and key donor, by refusing to allow Vietnam and the Philippines to raise concerns about their recent clashes with China in the closing communiqué.
Mr Kao Kim Hourn said that southeast Asian leaders “do not want to complicate matters” by raising the disputes in international forums.
His comments were backed by Beijing. Qin Gang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said that in meetings in Phnom Penh with Mr Wen, the leaders of Indonesia and Malaysia had agreed that the South China Sea “should be properly addressed between Asean and China” and should not be a “key issue” at the East Asia Summit.
In a statement likely to frustrate Washington, Mr Qin said that the focus of the meeting should be “how to deal with the impact of the international financial crisis in the East Asian region.”
In a briefing ahead of Mr Obama’s trip to southeast Asia, Thomas Donilon, a US national security adviser, said that the president wanted to make the East Asia Summit “an effective leaders’ level forum for dealing with strategic and security issues.”
US diplomats have noted that there are already a number of other major leaders’ forums for discussing economic issues, including the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation meetings and the G20.
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