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China Considers ASEAN Guidelines on Territorial Disputes - 2002-07-30

China says it must review a code of conduct put forward by ASEAN members regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The 10 member Association of Southeast Asian Nations hope to sign an agreement with China at an annual regional forum in Brunei this week.

China has long claimed the collection of tiny islands and reefs in the South China Sea, known as the Spratlys. The islands are believed to be lying above rich, untapped reserves of oil and gas. However, governments in the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan also claim sovereignty over some of the area.

After years of stalled efforts to develop a code of conduct in the Spratlys, Malaysia proposed the new idea of signing a non-binding declaration acceptable to all parties in an effort to avoid clashes in the South China Sea.

ASEAN foreign ministers say the want to work with China to reach a consensus on the document at their annual regional forum on Wednesday and Thursday. China is not an ASEAN member, but it nonetheless wields the most power in the region.

Asian security experts say, unless China approves the proposal by ASEAN soon, the code of conduct would be ineffective at best. "It seems to be almost useless to talk about security issues particularly at sea without China's participation," said Professor Panitan Wattanyagorn, a security analyst at Chulalonghorn University in Thailand. "If armed build-ups continue to grow unchecked, if territorial disputes are not carefully managed and if there are certain misunderstandings at sea, things could be more serious."

Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, arriving Tuesday for the meetings in Brunei, told reporters he needs to review the details in the code before making any commitments.