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ASEAN Maritime Specialists Discuss Guidelines to Resolve S. China Sea Dispute

A protester holds a red T-shirt with a yellow star, representing Vietnam's national flag, while chanting anti-China slogans with other demonstrators during a rally against China's claims in the oil-rich South China Sea, in Hanoi, Vietnam, July 2011. (file

Maritime specialists from across Southeast Asia are meeting in Manila to discuss a Philippine proposal for avoiding future conflicts in 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.

Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia academic with the University of New South Wales in Australia, said the meeting of maritime officials in Manila is part of the convoluted plan China and ASEAN agreed upon to resolve the conflicting claims in the South China Sea.

In July, both sides agreed to adopt vague guidelines to implement a declaration of conduct of parties in the South China Sea and then to develop a code of conduct to settle disputes. Thayer said this meeting is just the beginning of that process.

“So ASEAN legal experts are gathering and the question is, what would be a difference between a declaration on conduct of parties and a code of conduct that would make it legally binding? Most international law experts say it would have to be a treaty. But that is a road too far to take,” explained Thayer.

Conflicting claims

China, Taiwan the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia all hold conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea, which is believed to hold huge oil and gas reserves.

Thayer said the Philippines is the driving force behind the meeting and would like to press ASEAN to take a stronger stand against China's claim to the entire South China Sea.

Both the Philippines and Vietnam have complained of Chinese interference with ships exploring for oil and gas in waters the two countries claim as their exclusive economic zones. Beijing has defended its actions, saying its ships were acting in Chinese waters.

At the meeting, Philippines Vice President Jejomar Binay proposed making the disputed area a zone of peace, freedom, friendship and cooperation.

Defining disputed areas

But, under the Philippine proposal, the claimant countries would delineate which areas are in dispute and which are not. Exploration could then go ahead in the undisputed areas, while the disputed areas would be turned into an area for joint cooperation.

Thayer says that, although China may not like taking a multilateral approach to the problem, it agreed to deal with ASEAN on this issue when it signed on to the guidelines.

But he said this also could work in China's favor because some ASEAN countries, like Cambodia and Burma, are more sympathetic to China's position and will be unwilling to go along with any positions that may be seen as provocative.

“So they are trying to drag the other ASEAN states into nailing it down legally, and I suspect that if that becomes a legal point of friction with China, it will be very difficult for the Philippines to gain a consensus on this.”

The group's findings will be passed to senior officials from ASEAN, who will make recommendations ahead of the East Asia summit in November.