Asean must be united as a regional bloc when dealing with China on the contentious issue of the South China Sea, a resource-rich area that was the site of a recent diplomatic standoff between Manila and Beijing, Surin Pitsuwan, Asean secretary-general, said Saturday.
Speaking to reporters after the Asean foreign ministers’ meetings at Hun Sen’s office, the Peace Palace, in Phnom Penh, Mr. Pitsuwan asserted that any dispute or maritime challenges within the South China Sea are of great interest to the wider world.
“The situation is going to demand that Asean move in one direction together as the challenges are getting much closer to home,” Mr. Pitsuwan said.
“[It is] affecting confidence, having implications on foreign investment coming in; [there are] concerns about safety, concerns about free access, concerns about the energy security,” he said.
“All these things I think are putting a sense of urgency on all the Asean countries that we should move in the same direction.”
“We have seen some hiccups along the way, but all sides are committed to convey a message to the global community that things are under control. We have differences, but we can manage and we will be able to work on the COC [Code of Conduct],” Mr. Pitsuwan added.
Since Cambodia assumed the chairmanship of Asean, there have been differences within the regional bloc over how to handle the issue of the South China Sea vis-a-vis China —a maritime dispute that pits the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei against Beijing.
During the Asean Summit in April, Cambodia pushed for China’s involvement in Asean discussions on major points in the drafting of a COC regarding the South China Sea—a set of legally binding guidelines that would govern how disputes in the maritime territory are settled. The Philippines disagreed with China’s inclusion, stating that key elements in the COC should be decided within Asean before including China. Other Asean countries were apparently in favor of Manila’s position.
During the Asean Foreign Minister’s meeting in July, the bloc was hamstrung by the sea issue and failed to produce a joint communiqué—a first in Asean’s 45-year history.
The Philippines had insisted that the communiqué include language about the Scarborough Shoal maritime confrontation with China, while Cambodia refused.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said Asean’s commitment to implementing a Declaration of Conduct (DOC) regarding the South China Sea, which was created 10 years ago, should be seen as progress in the maritime issue. The stalled COC was supposed to supplant the DOC.
“We reiterated basically the need for the DOC to be implemented, and for the COC to be making progress on,” Mr. Natalegawa said Saturday. “The key word here is momentum. Indonesia is keen to ensure that we not lapse…and if we were to, there could be regression,” he said.
He also rejected the notion that China had stonewalled any momentum on the COC during a meeting in October between senior Asean officials and China in Thailand.
“I think at the time, there’s been a process going on in China itself, as you are aware recently, internally. So it’s about timing,” Mr. Natalegawa said. “[W]hat’s important is not to obtain a ‘no’ in the discussions. I think there hasn’t been a no given, so it’s still an ongoing process.”
A “hotline” between Asean member states and China has been proposed by Indonesia so that any incidents in the South China Sea can be communicated instantly between the countries, Mr. Natalegawa said.
“[I]f there were to be an incident in the future, irrespective of the fact that the COC is not yet in operation, we can commit to have communication and have dialogue if there were to be disputes,” he said.
Cambodian officials on Saturday declined to put a timeframe on the possible adoption of the COC.
“It’s very difficult to work on this DOC [implementation] and we cannot specify a time frame on it [the COC],” said Kao Kim Hourn, secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“It took 10 years for the DOC to come up with the guidelines. My hope is that it won’t take another 10 years,” Mr. Pitsuwan said at the close of Saturday’s meetings.