Maritime and legal experts from Southeast Asia are meeting in Manila for two days to discuss a Philippine proposal for conflict prevention over disputed territory in the South China Sea. The Philippines has been advocating for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to take a stronger stand against China's claims on the disputed region that is rich in oil and natural gas. In July, ASEAN and China agreed to implement vague guidelines on a declaration of conduct of parties in the South China Sea and develop a code of conduct to resolve disputes.
China, Taiwan the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia all hold conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea, which is thought to hold large oil and gas reserves. Both the Philippines and Vietnam have protested Chinese interference with ships exploring for oil and gas in the areas the two countries claim as their exclusive economic zones. Beijing defended its actions claiming its ships acted in Chinese waters.
China has reportedly objected to the meeting because it prefers bilateral talks with each claimant country.
During the meeting, Philippine Vice President Jejomar Binay proposed making the disputed area "a zone of peace, freedom, friendship and cooperation". Under the Philippine proposal, claimant countries would define disputed and undisputed areas, and exploration could be carried out in undisputed waters while joint cooperation would be undertaken in disputed areas.
Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia academic with the University of New South Wales in Australia, said that even though China is wary of tackling the problem multilaterally, it agreed to deal with ASEAN when it signed on to the guidelines. But he said this could also work in China's favour because some ASEAN countries, such as Cambodia and Myanmar, are more sympathetic to China's position and will be unwilling take any position seen as confrontational.
A Philippine diplomat remarked that if ASEAN makes a common stand, it would then attempt to obtain China's agreement as the proposal will stall unless China approves it. However, this is difficult as China is unwilling to consider claims by other countries.
A draft of the final statement to be issued after the meeting ends on Friday showed that all participants were more likely to support the Philippines' proposal. The group's findings will be handed to senior officials from ASEAN, who will make recommendations ahead of the East Asia summit in November.
Report: ASEAN Maritime Specialists Discuss Guidelines to Resolve S. China Sea Dispute(VOA, 22 Sep 2011)
Report: SE Asia risks China's ire to discuss sea dispute (Associated Press, 22 Sep 2011)
The Philippines, while acknowledging that the Spratly Islands is in a disputed area, meaning China and other countries have legitimate competing claims, insists that nearby areas, such as the Reed Bank where it has recently given oil and gas exploration permits, lie within its exclusive economic zone and is undisputed Philippine territory. But China, claiming most of the South China Sea, asserts that it has sole rights to the entire area, including the Reed Bank.
Report: Philippines seeks ASEAN help to blunt China (AFP, 22 Sep 2011)
This discussion comes amid raised tensions between India and China over the South China Sea. The Indian foreign office last week said that Indian companies, including ONGC Videsh and Essar Exploration and Production Limited, were expanding energy cooperation with Vietnam. Vietnamese Foreign Ministry Luong Thanh Nghi said on Monday that such projects were "within the sovereign rights and jurisdictional rights of Vietnam", and that any opposition towards cooperation on Vietnam’s continental shelf and within its exclusive economic zone was "completely devoid of legal basis and worthless".
In response, the People's Daily, official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, warned on Thursday that a joint energy project between India and Vietnam in the South China Sea violates China's territorial sovereignty, and that "the losses will outweigh the gains" if India and Vietnam pursues any joint project that harmed relations with China. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei reiterated on Thursday that any such endeavor without China's approval was "unlawful and without efficacy", but did not specify any country or company.
Report: China paper condemns Vietnam-India energy cooperation (Reuters, 22 Sep 2011)