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ASEAN Document Pushes Talks on South China Sea

FILE - Chinese ships chase Vietnamese vessels, not shown, after they came within 10 nautical miles of a Chinese oil rig in the South China Sea, July 15, 2014.
FILE - Chinese ships chase Vietnamese vessels, not shown, after they came within 10 nautical miles of a Chinese oil rig in the South China Sea, July 15, 2014.

A leaked ASEAN document, a draft of the chairman's statement for next week's summit, notes progress on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea and urges the group's members to peacefully resolve their maritime disputes with China.

A senior government source from an Association of Southeast Asian Nations member, who did not want to be named, gave the document to VOA this week. The statement is a draft of the communique that would typically be released at the end of an ASEAN summit, such as the one being held in next week in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

The summit, set for November 9-13 in Naypyitaw, will host regional and international leaders for talks on a broad range of issues.

But the leaked statement is written in the past tense, as if the summit had already happened.

It says, “We expressed our concerns over recent developments in the South China Sea, which have increased tensions in the area. We reaffirmed the importance of regional cooperation in maintaining peace and stability, promoting maritime security and safety, and the freedom of navigation, including in and overflight above the South China Sea."

It goes on to say, “We reaffirmed the collective commitments of ASEAN member states and China to peace, stability and maritime security and for the full and effective implementation of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in its entirety. We noted progress on negotiations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) and underscored the importance of maintaining the momentum of negotiations and working expeditiously towards the early conclusion of the COC."

China and ASEAN have been working on a conduct code for more than a decade but have made little progress. They reached a non-binding declaration of conduct more than a decade ago.

China has said it will negotiate territorial disputes only in one-on-one talks and has rejected any multilateral venue for dealing with the issues.

Chheang Vannarith, lecturer at the University of Leeds in Britain, told VOA Khmer that ASEAN was unlikely to conclude the COC in the next few years.

The South China Sea issue "remains sensitive and complicated for some countries in the region because they don’t want to fracture their relationships with China, a country that is the key business partner,” he said.

Achmad Rizal Purnama, first secretary of the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, told VOA that the most important thing for ASEAN and China was to create an atmosphere conducive for COC talks.

“When we are talking about the diplomatic part, we are aiming to conclude the Code of Conduct sooner rather than later because the conclusion of the so-called COC will pave the way for the issue itself to be addressed in an appropriate manner,” he said.

He also said the ASEAN summit and other summits with world leaders would present a good opportunity to address pressing issues facing the region and globe.

The South China Sea dispute has become quieter in recent weeks, after China removed an oil rig from waters also claimed by Vietnam.

Political analyst Sok Touch, Dean of Khemarak University in Cambodia, said ASEAN would not be able to solve the problem of the South China Sea because ASEAN members have different systems and foreign policy priorities.

“First, ASEAN has the different forms of governing its own nations — some are communists, dictatorships, democratic. ... All these are the barriers of finding common goal to solve the South China Sea,” he said.

The draft also stresses that ASEAN is jointly condemning Islamic State militants and criticizing North Korea for missile tests in violation of U.N. resolutions.

Myanmar, which is chair of ASEAN this year, has not commented on the leaked document.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Khmer service.