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ASEAN Talks Focus on S. China Sea Disputes

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, listens to Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, right, during their meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 12, 2012.
PHNOM PENH — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined senior South East Asian officials for high-level discussions in Cambodia Thursday. Ministers attending the Association of South East Asian Nations’ meetings have sought to downplay friction between member states and China all week. Yet, behind the scenes, simmering tensions from maritime disputes continue to contrast with the ministers’ public assurances of mutual cooperation.

Coming into this week’s meetings, analysts predicted tensions about the South China Sea would form a major part of discussions here. That dispute puts four ASEAN nations with competing territorial claims up against China, which claims most of the body of water.

But this week saw more controversies emerge, beyond ASEAN’s boundaries. Japan announced it had launched a formal protest with China, after Chinese vessels approached the Senkaku Islands, a set of remote islands claimed by both countries.

Both Japan and China are dialogue partners-not full members of ASEAN. But the issue still came up during bilateral discussions this week.

"In light of the historical facts and on the basis of historical law, there is no doubt that the Senkaku islands are an ancient territory of Japan. Furthermore, Japan has maintained valid control over the islands,” said Naoko Saiki, spokeswoman for Japan’s foreign minister.

In a statement this week, the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh confirmed that Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met with Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba on the sidelines of the ASEAN meetings. The statement says Yang stressed that the Diaoyu Islands, as they are known in China, “have always been China’s territory since ancient times, over which China has indisputable sovereignty.”

Publicly, of course, both countries have said they will not let the dispute cloud their relations.

But for the Philippines, an ASEAN member that has tried to advance South China Sea discussions all week, it is another worrisome maritime controversy involving China. On Wednesday, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario drew a parallel between the Senkaku controversy and China’s role in the South China Sea dispute.

“It looks like they’re becoming more aggressive every day,” Del Rosario said.

This week’s ASEAN meetings are to conclude Friday.