Three Asean ministers urge unified action, Code of Conduct

SINGAPORE - Defence ministers from three Asean countries signalled a united stand yesterday in demanding unified action to peacefully tackle longstanding territorial conflicts in the South China Sea.

Cambodia, perhaps the Asean nation closest to China, echoed current Asean chairman Malaysia's hope of seeing a Code of Conduct come into force. Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for National Defence Tea Banh said the code, which Asean members are negotiating with Beijing, can guarantee the peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea.

"Some would criticise these mechanisms as useless but I would rather argue that without these mechanisms, the tensions in the South China Sea would have escalated into full-scale conflict a long time ago," he said in his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Just a few weeks ago, Phnom Penh had argued that territorial conflicts in these waters should be tackled between claimants and not involve Asean.

Meanwhile, Asean's largest member, Indonesia, called for more dialogue, and suggested that countries embroiled in disputes in the South China Sea conduct joint patrols.

In his speech, Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said he is confident that these "peace patrols" can help solve the problem. Later, he told reporters these patrols could involve China as well - an idea Malaysia's Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said was "not an impossibility".

Malaysia has consistently advocated a diplomatic approach to the dispute, he said in his speech, and remains convinced that a Code of Conduct will be the best way to govern competing claims to the waters.

"It is an old problem. It involves the dignity and 'face' of the nations involved," he said. "If we are not careful, it could certainly escalate into one of the deadliest conflicts of our time, if not our history."

Mr Hishammuddin urged that consultations be intensified so the code can be expeditiously agreed upon.

Asean and China have been working towards such a code for several years but progress has been slow.

Yesterday, several delegates questioned the "glacial" progress of discussions.

Mr Hishammuddin replied: "We might be moving at a very glacial pace, but what is the alternative for small countries like ours?"

Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told reporters that Asean countries are finding ways to move forward.

He acknowledged that deliberations might seem slow to a public "used to Internet speed", but said: "Let's not get frustrated at the process. Let's recognise that it will be difficult.

"These dispute claims have gone on for a long time... But we ought to be patient because the alternative is much worse."

Countries acknowledging their different points of view is a good starting point, he added.

"It is much better than saying, 'I'm not going to talk about it. I'm going to assert my rights. Whatever you say, I'm going to do what I want'," said Dr Ng. "(That) is a sure course for collision."

asyiqins@sph.com.sg