ASEAN Calls for Talks With China on Sea Dispute

As the tensions between China and other countries over the sovereignty of the South China Sea continues, Reuters reports Southeast Asian leaders want to hold formal talks with China about the South China Sea disputes as soon as possible:

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.”

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.

The United States has also played a continued role in the disputes, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit earlier this year had reflected the tensions in the region. President Barack Obama will also visit Cambodia to attend the summit, from AP:

U.S. President Barack Obama, would also fly to Cambodia to attend on Tuesday the so-called East Asia Summit, an annual forum where ASEAN leaders and their counterparts from eight other nations, including China and the United states, would discuss security and economic concerns. Washington has backed calls for the drafting of a South China Sea nonaggression pact.

It’s unclear how China would respond, with ASEAN diplomats saying they have gotten unclear signals from Chinese officials.

Obama was expected to reiterate Washington’s call for a legally-binding code of conduct in the South China Sea in Cambodia.

Previously, a consensus on the South China Sea dispute had been elusive, but the head of ASEAN has expressed confidence in progressing towards a code of conduct for the disputed waters, the Wall Street Journal adds:

In an interview on the sidelines of the Phnom Penh gathering, Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said he believed there was a “momentum of good will” toward establishing a rulebook for tackling disputes in the waters.

“Senior officials have done their work on the elements that would eventually go into what we would call the code of conduct, and they have I think been able to revive that negotiation with the Chinese,” Dr. Pitsuwan said.

“They [Asean and China] have had some frank and candid discussions on the way forward, and that is they will continue to engage and work for the code of conduct because both [sides] believe that this would be an important instrument in helping to calm down the anxiety and the concern of all parties with direct and indirect interest.”

While ASEAN hopes for a code of conduct for the region, the Voice of America reports China is remaining inflexible on the sea dispute:

Beijing has lobbied against the code, preferring to address the territorial disputes with each country, one on one. On Friday Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesman gave no indication that Chinese authorities had changed their stance.

Du Jifeng, a researcher at the government-backed Institute for Asia Pacific Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Studies says that’s not surprising, even with a new leadership group coming into power.

“Although leaders have changed, the point of view has not changed. ASEAN countries hold a very important place in China’s diplomatic relations, so there won’t be a big change in China’s position,” he said.

Professor Du says he believes that despite alarms over the U.S. so-called pivot to the Pacific, it does not mean Washington is planning to interfere in specific territorial claims. “The U.S. has a big security interest in the area, but at the same time its official position is to maintain neutrality in the disputes, and also to solve the matters peaceful.” he said.

Aside from talks about the South China Sea, Southeast Asian nations will also launch talks on establishing a free trade pact with China, Japan, and other neighboring countries, AFP adds:

The planned zone would would span across 16 countries of the Asia-Pacific that currently account for a third of global trade and economic output, making it the biggest free trade area outside the World Trade Organization.

Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Global Insight, described the initiative as strategically very important to the Asia-Pacific as it would help offset weaknesses in the United States and the European Union.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen will launch the start of negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on Tuesday in Phnom Penh on the final day of a regional summit.

The RCEP would bring together the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations with China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.