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ASEAN Foreign Ministers Discuss South China Sea Dispute

ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, left, and Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa attend the ASEAN Ministerial meeting in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, July 19, 2011

Finding a solution to territorial disputes in the South China Sea between some members and China tops the agenda as foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gather in Indonesia.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa says ASEAN foreign ministers spent much of their meeting Tuesday debating efforts to resolve conflicting claims over reserves of oil and gas in the South China Sea.

Earlier in the day, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono urged the delegates to finalize a set of guidelines called the Declaration of Conduct between ASEAN and China on this issue. He noted the two sides have been negotiating the guidelines for the past nine years.

Natalegawa says while ASEAN sees the Declaration of Conduct and a planned Code of Conduct as the best way to resolve the dispute, some member states are considering other options. He says some delegates suggested making development in the disputed area a cooperative venture.

“One concept that has been mentioned is the idea of some kind of zone for the region that is marked by peace and by freedom and by cooperation,” Natalegawa noted.

China and Taiwan claim almost all of the South China Sea, while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam claim parts close to their shores. The dispute has occasionally flared into violence in the past 40 years, and in recent months, both Manila and Hanoi have complained of Chinese vessels encroaching on their territory.

The Philippines wants to bring the dispute before the United Nation's International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Natalegawa says that may prove difficult.

“The first requirement is that all sides or both sides agree to such course of action and I am not sure whether both sides, both the Philippines and China and maybe even others involved already agreed to that path,” Natalegawa added.

On another touchy issue for ASEAN, Natalegawa says he is encouraged that the Thai and Cambodian foreign ministers said their countries will comply with the International Court of Justice’s order to demilitarize a disputed border area.

However, while both sides agreed to the ruling in principle, Thailand says withdrawing military forces require time and negotiations. And Cambodia wants ASEAN observers deployed before it withdraws from the disputed area.

The dispute over territory around a 900-year-old Hindu-Khmer temple on the Cambodian side of the border has repeatedly flared into violence since 2008. More than 20 people have died in fighting this year.

The international court says it will rule later on Cambodia’s request for an interpretation of the 1962 verdict that gave the temple to Phnom Penh. Until it does, the court says, the two sides must move their troops away from the area.

The 10 ASEAN states (Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) are holding their annual meeting on foreign affairs and security this week. They also will hold bilateral and group meetings with top diplomats from their ASEAN’s neighbors and key partners, including China, Japan, South Korea and the United States.