S. China Sea disputes flare up again at Asean summit

Leaders call for calm after Philippine President disputes official's remarks

PHNOM PENH - The disputes over the South China Sea erupted again at the Asean summit, prompting some leaders to call for calm and warn against allowing the discord to hurt the region's economy.

Rekindling memories of the failed foreign ministers' meeting four months ago, the Philippines unexpectedly raised the issue at a meeting between Asean and key dialogue partner Japan.

Just as Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was wrapping up the session yesterday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino put up his hand to dispute comments by a Cambodian official that Asean had agreed to raise the disputes only at its talks with China.

"There were several views expressed yesterday on Asean unity which we did not realise would be translated into an Asean consensus," he said.

"For the record, this was not our understanding. The Asean route is not the only route for us. As a sovereign state, it is our right to defend our national interests."

The unexpected intervention prompted fears that the territorial issue would again throw Asean off its principal agenda of closer economic integration at a time when the global economy is slowing, hurting livelihoods around the world, including in Asia.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, speaking at the Asean Plus China meeting, warned that prolonged tensions in the region could affect investor confidence.

He urged calm from all parties and both sides to start talks on a formal Code of Conduct (COC) governing activities in disputed areas. "This will signal our resolve to maintain peace and stability... and show the international community that we can work together even on difficult issues," he said.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, for his part, opposed the "internationalisation" of the issue. He was quoted by a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman as telling Asean that talks should be held only between claimant states.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda also waded into the debate, warning that the disputes in the South China Sea could impact peace and stability in the region.

Yesterday was the second day of high-level talks in the Cambodian capital featuring separate summits between Asean and its dialogue partners, the US, China, Japan, South Korea and India.

US President Barack Obama arrived here in the evening after a six-hour stop in Myanmar.

During the Asean-US summit, PM Lee asked the US - which had previously said China should agree to a COC - to support Asean's central role as a neutral platform for major powers to engage the region.

He said discussions on a COC are "best done in an environment where the US is an encouraging but benign presence".

In both Asean's meeting with the US and with China, he said that the tenor of the US-China relationship will underpin regional stability and growth.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg

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