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Cambodia Says ASEAN Ministers Agree to 'Key Elements' of Sea Code

ASEAN countries' Foreign Ministers at the opening of the 45th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 9, 2012
ASEAN countries' Foreign Ministers at the opening of the 45th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 9, 2012
Michael LipinVOA

Cambodia says Southeast Asian foreign ministers have moved closer to agreement on guidelines for preventing territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

A Cambodian foreign ministry official said Monday top diplomats of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations made progress in drafting a maritime Code of Conduct, or COC, on the first day of an annual forum in Phnom Penh.

"They met and they adopted the key elements of the COC only among the member states, and from now on they will have to start assessments with China," said the official.

The official did not elaborate on the key elements of the Code of Conduct.

Six governments claim all or part of the South China Sea, with its vast fishing grounds and potential oil and gas deposits. The claimants include Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said Beijing is willing to discuss a Code of Conduct that builds mutual trust in the South China Sea when "conditions are ripe." But, the spokesman said such a document should not try to resolve maritime disputes between China and ASEAN as a whole. Beijing insists on negotiating with its neighbors bilaterally.

Regional tensions have risen recently, with Vietnam and the Philippines accusing China of aggressive behavior in the sea.

Last month, Vietnam protested China's decision to invite bids for South China Sea oil blocks. The Vietnamese National Assembly passed a law asserting that the areas are entirely within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. China strongly criticized the law, saying it is illegal.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen opened the ASEAN forum by urging other members of the 10-nation bloc to transform a 2002 declaration on maritime disputes into a binding agreement.

"We should put emphasis on the implementation of the Declaration of Conduct, including the eventual conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea," he said.

Under the Declaration of Conduct signed in 2002, ASEAN and China called for free navigation in the South China Sea, settling disputes peacefully, and respecting international agreements, including the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. But, ASEAN has spent a decade trying to formalize the declaration into a code of conduct.

Kyoto University political scientist Pavin Chachavalpongpun said he does not expect this week's ASEAN forum to finalize an agreement.

"I think ASEAN still remains only a platform for talking, talking and talking, no action. I do not have a lot of hope, to be honest with you, on the upcoming ASEAN meetings," he said.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman gave a more upbeat assessment of progress after the first day of talks.

"I think we are coming to an agreement," he said. "It is a very fruitful discussion. It is not a deadlock. This is a discussion among all member countries, very smooth and every member state has rights to voice their opinion."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due to join her ASEAN counterparts at the forum on Wednesday. Speaking on Sunday in Tokyo, she said the United States will urge Southeast Asian governments to settle territorial disputes diplomatically and avoid conflict.

"We want to see all parties with claims - whether they are land or maritime claims - pursue them in accordance with international law, including as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention," she said.

The European Union and 161 countries have ratified the U.N. treaty that went into effect in 1994.  The pact governs how nations may use the world's oceans and the resources they contain. The United States is the only industrialized nation that has not signed the treaty.  

Irwin Loy, Chris Hannas and VOA Khmer Service's Kong Sothanarith contributed to this report.

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