Southeast Asian nations urged China on Sunday to quickly begin top-level talks over tense sea territorial disputes, after forging a united position on how to tackle their giant neighbour.
Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) made their bid to break the impasse over China’s claims to nearly all of the South China Sea as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in Cambodia for an annual summit.
“On the Asean side, (we are) ready, willing and very much committed but it takes two to tango,” Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan told reporters after the Southeast Asian leaders held their own talks in Phnom Penh.
“The Asean side is ready and waiting for our Chinese friends to come forward.”
He said the Asean leaders wanted to begin “more formal and official” talks on a legally binding code of conduct aimed at easing tensions in the South China Sea “as soon as possible”.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen raised the proposal with Wen during a bilateral meeting on Sunday night, however China appeared to give no ground. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters after the meeting that China wanted to continue with the current framework of lower-level negotiations that were agreed on a decade ago.
“We already have good discussions with Asean,” Qin said.
Asean members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan, have claims to parts of the sea, which is home of some of the world’s most important shipping lanes and believed to be rich in fossil fuels.
But China insists it has sovereign rights to virtually all of the sea. The rival claims have for decades made the sea a powder keg issue in the region. Tensions have steadily risen over the past two years amid concerns from some Asean countries that China is becoming increasingly aggressive.
Efforts to secure a legally binding code of conduct involving Asean and China have floundered for years amid Beijing’s preference for handling disputes with individual countries.
China and Asean signed a broad declaration in 2002 on how parties should handle their disputes over the South China Sea, in which they committed to resolve the issues peacefully and through friendly consultations.
Qin said China wanted to continue working under the framework of that agreement, commonly known as the “DOC”.
“We are loyal to the DOC and we will sincerely implement the DOC with our Asean partners. This is our consistent position. There is no change,” Qin said.
However some Asean countries complain that the DOC is not legally binding, and has not prevented the recent diplomatic spats. The sea row also caused major divisions within Asean this year. Cambodia, a close China ally that has held the Asean chair this year, resisted efforts by the Philippines and Vietnam to take a more aggressive position against the Chinese.
But in the lead-up to and during their annual summit in Phnom Penh on Sunday, Asean leaders emphasized their intent to present a unified stance to China. AFP