An international research organization says the South China Sea territorial dispute has reached an impasse and the prospects of finding a resolution are diminishing.
The International Crisis Group said in a report
Tuesday the likelihood of a major conflict between China and Southeast Asian rival claimants remains low. But it warned "all of the trends are in the wrong direction."
The report was released after ASEAN, a 10-member Southeast Asian regional grouping of nations, did not agree on a code of conduct to uniformly resolve the maritime disputes at a regional summit in Cambodia last month.
The Brussels-based ICG says without a code of conduct for handling incidents, tensions in the South China Sea could "all too easily be driven to irreversible levels."
China claims nearly all of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer region, which is believed to hold large oil and natural gas deposits. The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim parts of the sea.
A series of relatively minor disputes, mostly involving fishing vessels, has played out over decades. But tensions began to escalate last year, with several claimants accusing Beijing of being increasingly aggressive about its claims.
In recent months, China has been engaged in a tense standoff with the Philippines over an uninhabited group of islands known as Scarborough Shoal. China further angered its neighbors this week by authorizing the deployment of a military base on the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam.
But the ICG report says China is not the only regional power stoking tensions. It also said Vietnam and the Philippines were "enlisting outside allies, with considerable energy."
The report says China has "worked actively" to exploit divisions among Southeast Asian nations, giving preferential treatment to those who support its position in the dispute.
The discord among ASEAN nations has widely been attributed in part to political pressure from China, which would rather deal separately with the five nations with which it has maritime disputes, rather than confront ASEAN as a whole.