Southeast Asia calls for talks with China on sea dispute

Sun Nov 18, 2012 8:34am EST
 

By Manuel Mogato and Stuart Grudgings

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Southeast Asian nations displayed a rare show of unity on Sunday against China's sweeping maritime claims, calling for the first formal talks with Beijing over a sea dispute that has raised tensions and exposed deep divisions in the region.

As Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in Cambodia for meetings with Southeast Asian leaders, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) appeared determined to avoid a repeat of an embarrassing breakdown of talks in July over competing claims in the mineral-rich South China Sea, its biggest security challenge.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen will tell Wen that ASEAN wants to begin talks on a binding Code of Conduct, aimed at reducing the chance of naval flashpoints, as soon as possible, ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan told reporters.

"Prime Minister Hun Sen himself will be discussing with the PM of China tonight and delivering this consensus on the ASEAN side," Surin said.

"They would like to see the commencement of the discussion as soon as possible because this is an issue of interest, concern and worry of the international community."

China's assertive claims in the South China Sea have sown deep divisions within the bloc at a time when military spending in the region is surging and the United States refocuses attention on Asia - a "pivot" that President Barack Obama will reinforce on his visit to the summit on Monday in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh.

Chinese ally Cambodia has used its powers as ASEAN chair this year to restrict discussion of the issue, in line with Beijing's view that the disputes should be discussed on a bilateral basis. China has said it is willing to discuss the Code of Conduct when the "time is right."

Asked about the ASEAN request for formal talks, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said consultations with ASEAN nations were ongoing and that the issue should not be a "stumbling block" for relations between China and the region.   Continued...

 
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) accompanies Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao as he inspects honor guards after he arrived for the 21st ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and East Asia summits in Phnom Penh November 18, 2012. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj