This time, President Benigno Aquino will do the talking in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and he will insist that Southeast Asian nations take a common stand on territorial disputes with China in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Mr. Aquino leaves for the Cambodian capital Friday to attend the 21st plenary session of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) that observers expect will be dominated by a raft of territorial rows.
The two days of annual talks will be preceded on Sunday by a summit of the leaders of the 10 Asean countries, which have struggled to forge a united stand on China’s claims to the West Philippine Sea.
Speaking to reporters in Tagaytay City Thursday, Mr. Aquino said all 10 members of Asean should speak with one voice at the summit, which would be attended by leaders from East Asian countries and Asean dialogue partners China, the United States, Canada, India and the European Union.
US President Barack Obama will be there, too, but he and Mr. Aquino have no scheduled meeting during the summit.
But Mr. Aquino and the other Asean leaders are hoping Obama will support them in their efforts to contain China, which is flexing its economic and military muscles to assert its claim on the West Philippine Sea, where islands and islets, reefs and atolls are believed to be sitting on vast oil and gas reserves, and which is home to sea-lanes vital to global trade.
Mr. Aquino said the Philippines wanted to have a firmer consensus to hasten the signing of a code of conduct for the West Philippine Sea and the implementation of the Declaration of Conduct on South China Sea.
The President noted that Asean included four countries with some overlapping claims to islands and waters in the West Philippine Sea—the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Nonmember Taiwan also has claims to territory in the West Philippine Sea.
Asean also includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Burma, Singapore and Thailand.
Mr. Aquino said tensions flared last summer as soon as the Philippines announced a service contract for exploration of the sea so “there should be clear-cut policies to achieve stability.”
“We can talk to the other claimants that aren’t Asean members, but since we want to maintain Asean centrality, we must have just one voice in Asean… in this regard,” Mr. Aquino said.
The Philippines and Vietnam have this year expressed growing concern at what they perceive as increasingly aggressive tactics by China in staking its claims to the sea.
China insists it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the waters and has refused to discuss the territorial disputes with Asean as a bloc, insisting on one-on-one talks with its rivals.
From early April to mid-June, Chinese and Philippine ships faced off at Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), a resource-rich area on the Philippine side of the sea.
At about the same time, China made a show of force in the Paracels Islands on Vietnam’s side of the sea, building a military garrison on Woody Island and sending a large fishing fleet accompanied by patrol vessels to the area—all in response to Hanoi’s enacting a maritime law that asserted Vietnamese sovereignty over the Paracels.
With Washington keen to assert itself as a Pacific power and counter a rising China, Obama is expected to be “quite vocal” on the sea rows, said Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
Obama is likely to reiterate that the United States has a fundamental interest in freedom of navigation in the sea, while urging Asean and China to agree on a code of conduct for the area, according to Ian Storey, a regional security analyst of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
Asean had hoped to negotiate a code of conduct this year governing behavior in the disputed waters but progress stalled when Asean foreign ministers had a falling out over the maritime issue at a ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh in July.
Cambodia, the current Asian chair and a close China ally, refused to allow Hanoi and Manila to mention specific run-ins with Beijing over the sea, preventing the group from issuing a joint communiqué for the first time in its 45-year history.
“Cambodia will be keen to avoid a repeat of the July fiasco,” said Storey, but he warned that Phnom Penh “won’t support any move on the West Philippine Sea by its Asean partners that would annoy China.”
Storey and Pavin agreed there was little chance of a code of conduct being successfully negotiated at the upcoming talks but there would be an effort to show parties were looking for diplomatic solutions.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario reiterated the Philippines’ commitment to a peaceful resolution of the territorial disputes as the country marked the 30th-year anniversary of the Manila Declaration.
Thirty years ago Thursday, the UN General Assembly adopted the Manila Declaration on the Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes, a document initiated by the Philippines, Indonesia, Mexico, Egypt, Nigeria, Romania, Sierra Leone and Tunisia.
In a statement from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), Del Rosario stressed the Philippine stand of resolving international disputes through the rule of law and without the use of force, as embodied in the 1982 declaration.
Diplomats often refer to the declaration when discussing territorial disputes closest to home, in the case of the Philippines, the country’s territorial dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea.
Del Rosario and Vietnam’s foreign minister argued for the mention of their countries’ specific disputes with China in the West Philippine Sea in the customary joint communiqué but Cambodia blocked their efforts.
Asked if he would try to get the Philippines’ brushes with China in the sea on Asean record in Phnom Penh, Mr. Aquino said: “Well, we will go after that.”
He added: “We have unity within Asean. But every country will have to weigh its interest and be guided by each country’s interest, as we are being guided by our country’s interest.”
East Asian disputes
A row between China and Japan over rival claims to islands in the East China Sea, which has severely shaken diplomatic and trade ties between the Asian powers this year, is also expected to cast a shadow over next week’s talks.
In yet another territorial dispute, Japan is at loggerheads with fellow US ally South Korea, whose President Lee Myung-bak angered Tokyo with a surprise visit to a disputed island chain in the sea between the two countries in August.
Lee and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda are planning to hold their first formal talks since the spat erupted on the sidelines of next week’s meetings, Kyodo News said this week, citing Japanese government sources.
But traditional trilateral talks between the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea are not expected to occur because of the tensions.
On the economic front, Asean members are set to launch negotiations over a giant free trade zone with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.
The 16 nations account for roughly half the global population and around a third of the world’s annual gross domestic product.
Asean, which marks its 45th founding anniversary this year, is moving toward a single economic community by 2015. With reports from Tarra Quismundo and AFP