ASEAN FOREIGN MINISTERS' RETREAT

Asean to 'speak with one voice' on South China Sea disputes

Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore also discuss haze problem

ASEAN foreign ministers have agreed "to speak with one voice" on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and are looking for an "early conclusion" to negotiations with China over a binding code of conduct for the competing claims.

Tension in the South China Sea, one of the world's most important waterways, has surged in recent years as a resource-hungry China asserts its vast claims over the area rich in oil and gas deposits much more forcefully.

Four Asean states, including Vietnam and the Philippines, have overlapping claims with China.

"Asean must speak with one voice. When we say one voice, it does not mean one voice against anyone, it means... unity in Asean," senior Thai Foreign Ministry official Sihasak Phuangketkeow told reporters after an Asean Foreign Ministers' retreat yesterday morning.

He said the aim of the code of conduct is to "enhance mutual trust and confidence, and prevent untoward incidents from occurring". Indonesia has proposed setting up a hotline between China and Asean states.

China has agreed to hold talks with Asean next month on the proposed code of conduct.

But wary of concessions that might weaken its territorial claims, Beijing has insisted it is in no rush to sign such a code.

Meanwhile, officials from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore held a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Asean retreat to discuss the haze problem.

They renewed their commitment to combating the haze, but the issue of access to official land concession maps continued to be a sticking point.

The maps, when used with satellite technology, are seen as crucial in efforts to pinpoint the culprits behind haze-causing forest fires in Sumatra.

Indonesia and Malaysia have cited legal concerns about making such maps public. But in a compromise, Asean environment ministers agreed in July that these maps would be shared between governments and on a "case-by- case basis".

In an interview after the hour- long trilateral meeting with his two counterparts, Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said concerns over the maps have not been fully resolved.

"Our haze-monitoring system is based on satellite imaging. You overlay that with a map of the concessions, who owns what area, and you know precisely what is happening," he said.

"The only difficulty is the concession maps we have are based on the Internet and what people have been able to find. The official concession maps will be with Indonesia and that is something we will have to work through."

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, speaking to reporters, sidestepped a question on whether Indonesia would provide concession maps, saying that these are "a means to an end".

"The basic approach is building on national efforts... All the national (monitoring) systems must be synergised and brought together under the Asean framework."

The three foreign ministers were also given a presentation on a joint haze-monitoring system developed by Singapore.

The system is undergoing trials in the three countries. Asean leaders meeting in Brunei in October will decide whether to adopt the system region-wide.

nirmal@sph.com.sg