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South China Sea Dispute Continues to Dominate ASEAN Forum

Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert Del Rosario listens to a question during a press conference in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, July 20, 2011
Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert Del Rosario listens to a question during a press conference in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, July 20, 2011

The dispute between China and some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations continues to dominate the organization's annual regional security meeting. ASEAN leaders say progress has been made in developing guidelines to help resolve conflicting claims to oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea, but some members are disappointed that ASEAN did not take a stronger stand against China.

Southeast Asian and Chinese officials say they have agreed on a set of non-binding guidelines for implementing the 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

Their progress Wednesday could lead to a binding code of conduct for handling disputes in the region. A Chinese foreign ministry official at the ASEAN meeting in Bali called the agreement an important milestone for cooperation.

But some ASEAN members say the guidelines are vague and incomplete. They complain there is no framework to directly address disputed areas believed to be rich in oil and gas.

ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam claim areas near their shores but China and Taiwan claim the entire South China Sea. Recently, Manila and Hanoi have complained of Chinese vessels encroaching on their territory.

The Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario says China's claim is so all encompassing that if allowed to stand, it makes developing a code of conduct with China a useless exercise.

“They are essentially saying they have full sovereignty over the South China Sea. So you are signing an agreement with China," Del Rosario. "It is supposed to be a code of conduct. But China is saying on the other hand that they own everything.”

He says he would have liked to see ASEAN take a stronger position, by issuing guidelines that lay out clear criteria to settle disputes based on international law. Instead, he says, the Philippines will likely act alone and take their case to a tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS, even if China is unwilling to participate.

“We intended to go to UNCLOS if China was willing to come with us. And if they were not, as it seems they are not intending to come with us, then we would seek an arbitration proceeding from either, under the UNCLOS, there is a permanent arbitration and there is an ad hoc arbitration," he said. "And lastly there is a compulsory conciliation procedure where you can get an opinion but it is non-binding, but there is moral suasion to that opinion.”

Del Rosario also said the disputed area is covered under the defense treaty between the Philippines and the United Sates. The foreign minister of China and the U.S. secretary of state will join the ASEAN regional security forum in Bali later in the week.

China bases its claims on centuries-old maps that predate modern maritime law. It says it will only consider holding bilateral discussions on the issue, while the Southeast Asian states want multilateral talks.

Beijing also is critical of the U.S. position: Washington says it has a national interest in ensuring freedom of transportation through the South China Sea.