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Sea disputes, N. Korea in spotlight at ASEAN summit

Concerned about possible escalation of long-seething tensions over certain isles in South China Sea, Southeast Asian officials meeting in Brunei this week are planning to press China to agree to begin talks to draft a new pact aimed at preventing a major military confrontation in one of the busiest waterways in the globe.

Apprehension over North Korea’s recent saber-rattling is also expected to compete for attention over vital economic issues in the annual ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Summit being held Wednesday and Thursday in Bandar Seri Begawan, capital of Brunei.

The 10-nation ASEAN bloc is under time-pressure to try to develop the significantly culture-differentiated region of 600 million people after the European Union model-community before 2016.

First conceptualized in a 2007 master plan, the work to transform the dynamic region into a singular market-and-production hub has reached about 77 percent completion, according to a draft declaration to be released after the summit. No details as to what remains undone have been given.

A copy of the joint statement obtained by The Associated Press on Monday states the ASEAN leaders’ continuing commitment to ensure the peaceful resolution of South China Sea conflicts within the bounds of international law¬† and “without resorting to the threat or use of force.”

ASEAN stands to call for “the early adoption of a code of conduct in the South China Sea,” referring to a legally-binding agreement it would like to forge with China to replace a 2002 nonaggression accord that has failed to stop territorial conflicts.

China, Taiwan and ASEAN members Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines have overlapping territorial claims across the South China Sea, which Beijing claims in its entirety. Vietnam and the Philippines, for instance, have been constantly playing cat-and-mouse with China over the region in recent years, with diplomatic squabbles exploding over gas and oil exploration and fishing rights.

A tense standoff last year between Chinese and Filipino naval ships over the resource-rich Scarborough Shoal has remained unsettled.

The Philippine vessels withdrew; but China has adamantly declined from pulling out its three surveillance ships and removing a rope stopping Filipino fishermen from venturing into a Scarborough lagoon.

The Philippines, early this year, protested against China’s extensive territorial claims before an arbitration tribunal of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in a bold legal action that China has all but ignored. The tribunal is still hoping to appoint three more of five arbiters by Thursday, then begin investigating the complaint whether it has jurisdiction.

A pre-summit conference of ASEAN foreign ministers in Brunei two weeks ago generally revolved around concerns over the territorial disputes and concluded with a demand for an early completion of a nonaggression pact with China, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario stated.

Chinese officials, however, have not specifically signified when they would decide to meet for discussions on the proposed accord.

ASEAN unity has been endangered by the territorial issue. Cambodia, an all of China, rejected moves to have the issue inserted in a post-ministerial statement during last year’s summit. Vietnam and the Philippines protested the snub and the ASEAN summit concluded without issuing an after-conference communique, a first in the bloc’s 45-year existence.

China has vigorously refused to bring the issues to the international forum, opting to deal with each of its rivals on a one-on-one basis. It has also warned U.S. not to intervene in the regional disputes.

Founded in 1967 as a front against communism in the Cold War era, ASEAN has often been caught in the crossfire of major conflicts. As it is, the bloc walks an unsteady tightrope between a growing China and a powerful America that is reasserting its status in Asia-Pacific.

The two giants wield tremendous influence over the developing, small ASEAN nations, whose region has become a battleground for political and security control and export markets as it contains one of the world’s busiest sea lanes.

National Defense Forces from all of members of ASEAN, together with eight other countries that include the United States and China, will conduct, for the first time, three-day disaster preparedness drills in Brunei come June to promote confidence among the multinational troops, the draft summit statement also mentioned.

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Brunei’s media-shy leader, has initiated the tedious ground-work to prevent any major fisaco in the ASEAN summits his tiny but oil-rich kingdom is hosting this year.

Bolkiah has separately met with US President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping prior to this week’s summit. Last week, he flew to Manila, to discuss part of the summit agenda with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III.

When his gleaming Royal Brunei Air plane taxied to a red-carpet welcome in Manila, Philippine officials were surprised to see Bolkiah, who also commands Brunei’s defense forces, at the pilot’s seat.

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