ASEAN Consensus Elusive on South China Sea Pact

As ASEAN officials seek agreement on the dispute over the South China Sea, they are now urging a pact, but a consensus has not yet been reached. This comes amid tensions in the region as a Chinese Navy warship was sprung from a shoal in the disputed region. Reuters reports:

Southeast Asian states sought to save face on Friday with a call for restraint and dialogue over the South China Sea, but made no progress in healing a deep divide about how to respond to China’s growing assertiveness in the disputed waters.

After heated discussions at a summit last week that saw its customary communique aborted for the first time in its 45-year history, the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN) issued a six-point statement that omitted the contentious issues that had its 10 members locked in a bitter dispute for days.

Cambodia’s comments contrasted with the positive gloss applied by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who on Friday said ASEAN had reached a “common position”, even though there was no communique.

“You can only have an ASEAN that is central in the region if ASEAN itself is united and cohesive. Last week we were tested, there have been some difficulties but we have grown the wiser from it,” he told Reuters.

Despite the ASEAN summit’s lack of a resolution for the South China Sea dispute, Xinhua has reported that China has pledged to work with ASEAN:

China pledged Friday to make joint efforts with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to safeguard regional peace and stability after the 10-member bloc issued a six-point statement on the South China Sea.

“The Chinese side is willing to work together with the ASEAN members to implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) comprehensively and effectively,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in response to a question on the ASEAN statement.

“The Chinese side has noticed the ASEAN’s statement on the South China Sea (on Friday),” Hong said, adding that the core problem of the South China Sea was the disputes over the sovereignty of the Nansha islands and the demarcation of the islands’ adjacent waters.

“China has sufficient historical and jurisprudential evidence for its sovereignty over the Nansha islands and the adjacent waters,” he added.

The US has previously expressed support for the Philippines in the dispute. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the United States sees a risk of war in the South China Sea:

The White House has warned of the rising risk of accidental war in the South China Sea and called for countries in the region urgently to agree to a code of conduct.

Analysts say the South China Sea is the new flashpoint of Asia. Most world shipping – and Australian exports – pass through it. ”A code of conduct, in our view, is a matter of commonsense,” the National Security Council’s senior director for Asia, Danny Russell, said. In a call implicitly aimed at China, Mr Russell said 10 years ago China had agreed to negotiate such a code of conduct. It has repeatedly said it will agree to discussions ”when the time is ripe”. A Pentagon official with responsibility for US defence policy in Asia, Vikram Singh, said: ”The time is ripe now”.

China has said the US is meddling in the region’s affairs by encouraging a code of conduct. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, responded: ”The US is a resident Pacific power”.

The US takes no position on the competing claims but wants a ”binding framework” to avoid clashes or to resolve them peacefully.

While China moves to take control of the disputed region, Vietnamese protests continue against ‘Chinese aggression,’ from The Guardian:

Hundreds of demonstrators have marched through the streets of Hanoi to protest, for the third time this month, against China’s claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea.

Protesters stopped mid-morning traffic as they carried banners and Vietnamese flags, while shouting “The Spratly and Paracel Islands belong to Vietnam!” and “Down with Chinese aggression!”.

While police escorted the protesters through the streets and did not appear to be making arrests, police have heavily cracked down on dissent in the past few weeks, and a number of influential activists and bloggers have been harassed and detained.

“Police came to my house last night and told me that if I attended [the demonstration] I would be arrested,” one prominent human rights activist told the Guardian by telephone on Sunday. “When I tried to leave this morning, a group of them forced me back into the house to stop me, and they are still outside.”

Another Reuters article reports that China has approved of a formal military garrison of the area:

China’s powerful Central Military Commission has approved the formal establishment of a military garrison for the disputed South ChinaSea, state media said on Sunday, in a move which could further boost tensions in already fractious region.

China has a substantial military presence in the South China Sea and the move is essentially a further assertion of its sovereignty claims after it last month upped the administrative status of the seas to the level of a city, which it calls Sansha.

The official Xinhua news agency said the Sansha garrison would be responsible for “national defense mobilization … guarding the city and supporting local emergency rescue and disaster relief” and “carrying out military missions”.

It provided no further details.

Read previous coverage about tensions in the South China Sea, via CDT.