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South China Sea Dispute High Priority for ASEAN

  • Brian Padden

Secretary General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Surin Pitsuwan of Thailand delivers a keynote speech during the 17th International Conference on The Future of Asia in Tokyo, May 26, 2011.

Secretary General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Surin Pitsuwan of Thailand delivers a keynote speech during the 17th International Conference on The Future of Asia in Tokyo, May 26, 2011.

Foreign ministers and other officials from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are meeting this week in Bali where they are expected to focus on the dispute between China and some ASEAN members about rights to vast oil and gas reserves in the South China sea.

ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan says this week the organization will take another step forward in becoming an integrated community that will speak with one voice on security issues.

“That is one feature of a community that is being able to come up with common positions on various issues that the global community has been facing and certainly immediately for us, making sure that the region is at peace, is stable and secure,” says Surin.

ASEAN is holding a series of high-level meetings in Bali, Indonesia this week including the ASEAN Regional Forum that will focus on security issues.

In addition to foreign ministers from ASEAN members states, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and representatives from China, Russia, Japan, the EU and other nations will also participate.

Surin says addressing the dispute among China, Taiwan and ASEAN member states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam about competing claims to large reserves of oil and gas in the South China Sea will be a high priority for ASEAN.

“One united stand of ASEAN is that all of us have a common desire to see the region, including the South China Sea, being managed peacefully," he says. "And we can together work out our differences, and that ASEAN and China could send that positive signal to the international committee because all of them are concerned, all of them are anxious about the situation there.”

Surin says ASEAN's role in facilitating a resolution process should not conflict with China's demand that this issue be resolved at the bilateral level.

Resolving disputes between member states and promoting democracy and human rights will also be addressed, he says.

Earlier this year ASEAN Chairman and Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa took on a high profile mediator role to try to negotiate an end to a border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia. Natalegawa ultimately failed to get the two sides to resolve the dispute but Surin says the decisive election of Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra could reinvigorate the peace process.

At the last ASEAN meeting in May human rights groups complained about ASEAN's decision to allow Burma to head the organization in 2014, despite Burma's widespread restrictions on opposition parties, detention of political activists and severe limits on basic freedoms.

ASEAN officials have been reluctant to criticize Malaysian authorities for recently using tear gas and water cannons to disperse thousands of peaceful protesters. Pitsuwan says ASEAN will continue to rely on positive engagement rather than punitive enforcement to encourage its members to embrace democratic reform.

“Now what is going on in Malaysia is certainly within that trend of increasing participation of our people in the political process and I think this is very much to be expected," says Surin. "But each country has to handle the challenges on its own, differently, and we do hope that it will be peaceful, that it will be productive and constructive.”

Surin also says ASEAN is resuming talks with the five nuclear-weapon states to ratify a 1995 treaty that would make Southeast Asia a nuclear weapons free zone.

If ratified the treaty could bar nuclear warships from docking in Southeast Asia. Surin says China has expressed a willingness to sign the treaty and that ASEAN officials will begin discussions with the United States, Russia and other nuclear powers.

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