China Rift Brewing at Asean Summit

By Sopheng- Cheang 4 April 2012

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—New differences could undercut attempts by Southeast Asian countries and China to forge a pact aimed at preventing territorial conflicts from erupting into violence, diplomats said on Tuesday at the start of a regional meeting.

The disputes in the South China Sea and North Korea’s planned rocket launch this month are top security worries expected to feature prominently at a two-day summit of Southeast Asian leaders in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

Burma, meanwhile, was basking in praise from colleagues for its recent democratic reforms. It was a marked reversal for the country, condemned for years for massive human rights violations, from its previous black sheep image at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ annual gathering.

Burmese President Thein Sein briefed fellow leaders on Sunday’s historic by-elections, which saw pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party sweep to victory, Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said.

Thein Sein said he hoped the encouraging way the polls were held “will contribute to a higher confidence … and will contribute to Burma own standing within ASEAN and in the international community,” Surin told The Associated Press in an interview.

Cambodia, the 10-nation Asean’s steward this year, has wanted to focus on non-politically volatile issues like the goal of transforming Southeast Asia from a disparate cluster of fledgeling democracies, socialist states and monarchies into a European Union-like bloc that could compete in a bustling region dominated by rising giants such as China and India.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen outlined the financial problems roiling the world, including skyrocketing oil prices, that he said could hurt the region if it did not unify. He did not touch on controversial security issues.

“Asean is facing challenges that need to be addressed in order to realize its objective of ‘one community, one destiny,’” Hun Sen said in a speech, mentioning this year’s summit theme.

Ahead of the leaders’ summit, foreign ministers and senior diplomats discussed a proposal to turn a nonbinding 2002 political declaration into a legally binding “code of conduct” to discourage aggression and prevent armed clashes among China and five other claimants—including ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam—in contested South China Sea areas, officials said. Taiwan also makes claims to the South China Sea.

China has said it wants to take part in the drafting of the code with Asean. But Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said the bloc’s members should complete a version among themselves before discussing it with China.

“It is important we maintain Asean centrality,” told the other leaders. After Asean drafts a code, “then Asean member states will meet with China,” he said.

Surin said a target has been set to have a code in place this year.

China has rejected arrangements that would force it to negotiate with a bloc of nations over the disputes, preferring one-to-one talks with each claimant.

Chinese officials, who were not present at the Phnom Penh meetings, have relayed a proposal for the setting up of a 10-member group of experts and prominent statesmen that can help think of solutions, but Vietnam and the Philippines outrightly rejected the idea, according to two Southeast Asian diplomats involved in the discussions.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Despite differences, Surin said it was a sign of progress that China was willing to join Asean in discussing ways to solve the disputes.

“There may be some variation of opinions but I think on the whole, we’re moving in the direction of engaging very actively on the issue,” Surin said. “I think it’s very important to reassure the world that we can manage our differences.”

The conflicts have settled into an uneasy standoff since the last fighting, involving China and Vietnam, killed more than 70 Vietnamese sailors in 1988.

North Korea’s planned rocket launch is also expected to be a main topic at the summit. US officials say the rocket is actually a test of long-range missile technology, and nations are concerned that parts could fall in Southeast Asia. North Korea insists it is planning to place a peaceful observation satellite into orbit sometime between April 12 and 16.