South China Sea rows cloud Asean talks

Officials working out common positions for joint communique

AMID simmering volatility across the region, Asean foreign ministers are meeting today among themselves and later with counterparts from the United States, China, India and other countries in Myanmar's capital, to work out common positions on potentially contentious issues.

As dark monsoon clouds and periodic thundershowers rolled outside, senior officials huddled indoors yesterday, deep in negotiation over the text of the joint communique to be issued by the Asean ministers as early as tonight or as late as Sunday.

The routine work of the 10-state grouping in readying for the integrated Asean Economic Community by the end of 2015 is plodding forward. But territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which have tested Asean unity, also figure prominently in the talks.

The South China Sea issue will spill over from the Asean Ministerial Meeting to the subsequent Asean Regional Forum (ARF), an annual security dialogue among the Asean foreign ministers and key partners including China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the European Union.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, who flies in tomorrow for the ARF on Sunday, has the job of underscoring Washington's commitment to the region.

But overshadowing this agenda is the issue of tensions over the South China Sea.  

At a press conference on Aug 4 in Washington, the US' top diplomat for east Asia and the Pacific, Mr Daniel R. Russel, stressed the need for a "quick de-escalation of tensions" in the waters claimed almost entirely by China, and in part by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

China placed an oil rig in the first week of May in waters claimed by Vietnam, sparking skirmishes at sea. In Vietnam, anti-Chinese riots erupted.  

The Philippines has also protested against Beijing's construction activities on reefs in the South China Sea. Manila has proposed a three-stage moratorium on any activity in the disputed waters.

Manila's proposal is similar to the US position. In Washington, Mr Russel said: "The regional economy is too important and too fragile for any country or any claimant to use the threat of military force, or paramilitary force."

There is space, he said, for claimants to voluntarily "offer, if everyone will agree, to renounce those kinds of actions".

China, however, has already rejected any moratorium.

But while the withdrawal earlier this month of its state-owned oil rig has only temporarily calmed the tension with Vietnam, it is also seen as a signal of goodwill ahead of the Asean meeting.

Asean's challenge is to maintain consensus and resist Chinese pressure to leave out language on the South China Sea in the joint communique that may be seen as detrimental to Beijing's claim.

The statement is also likely to condemn the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine on July 17, and urge a speedier and more open investigation.