Nations fail to unite after row at Asian summit


China’s sovereignty claims over large swathes of the South China Sea dashed attempts by southeast Asian leaders to agree a united front at the Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit in Phnom Penh yesterday, prompting US president Barack Obama to call for an easing of tensions in the region.

The 10-member Asean’s ambition is to forge a European Union-style bloc by the end of 2015, but among the impediments to closer co-operation are territorial disputes with regional powerhouse China over the potentially oil- and gas-rich islands in the South China Sea.

Diplomatic row

China lays claim to nearly the entire South China Sea, based on historical records, but this has set it on a collision course with Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia, with each claiming different parts of the area.

Although neither China nor the US is a member of Asean, the diplomatic row has highlighted the extent to which the US and, increasingly, China dominate the region.

Mr Obama was in Cambodia as part of a three-day trip to southeast Asia, visiting three key countries, including long-time ally Thailand and Myanmar (Burma), where he hailed ever warmer ties with the former pariah state.

His visit underlines Washington’s intentions to shift influence to a “Pacific pivot” after years of focus on Iraq and Afghanistan.

For its part, China has pledged to steadfastly defend what it sees as its backyard.

Although Vietnam and the Philippines want China to negotiate with the other claimants as a unified group, China prefers things to be done on a bilateral basis, as it can wield more influence, and Beijing has warned Washington not to interfere in the region.

Call for consensus

The US said it will not take sides and has called for a code of conduct to prevent clashes in the disputed territories, a call backed by Australia and Japan. China also has disputes with Japan over an island chain called the Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.

Premier Wen Jiabao said shelving disputes and promoting consensus demonstrated the concept of the “Oriental Civilisation”, state news agency Xinhua reported, and said east Asian countries should follow such a spirit when dealing with territorial or maritime disputes.

“We do not want to bring the disputes to an occasion like this.

“We do not want to give overemphasis to the territorial disputes and differences, and we don’t think it’s a good idea to spread a sense of tension in this region,” Mr Wen added.

Divisive issue

Normally the Asean meetings are fairly tame affairs. However, this event has seen a major diplomatic row after Hun Sen, prime minister of Cambodia, which has strong links to China, appeared to bow to pressure from Beijing when he said there was consensus among Asean leaders not to discuss the divisive issue in talks between the bloc and China.

He was challenged by an outraged Benigno Aquino III, president of the staunchly pro-US Philippines, who said his country planned to bring the disputes before a UN tribunal and would not sign such an agreement.

Hun Sen said Mr Aquino’s remarks would be reflected in the record of the meeting, but Cambodian and Chinese officials later said the agreement stood.

The Philippines was subsequently backed by Vietnam and Singapore in objecting to Cambodia’s plan for a post-summit communiqué to say such an agreement had been reached.