MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Indonesia’s top diplomat embarked on an emergency swing through Southeast Asia on Wednesday to try to end disagreements over territorial rifts in the South China Sea and push for a new pact aimed at avoiding future clashes.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said he met his Philippine counterpart, Albert del Rosario, in Manila on Wednesday and would fly to other Southeast Asian nations to try to ease the discord and prevent further damage to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Foreign ministers of the 10-nation bloc failed to issue a concluding joint statement after their annual meeting in Phnom Penh last week when host Cambodia rejected a proposal by the Philippines and Vietnam to mention their separate territorial disputes with China in the statement.
The absence of a post-conference statement was unprecedented in ASEAN’s 45-year history and underscored the divisions within the group over the handling of the South China Sea disputes, which involve four of its members — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The four, along with China and Taiwan, have been contesting ownership of potentially oil- and gas-rich territories for years and recent spats have raised new tensions and alarm in the region.
Cambodia, a close China ally, has followed Beijing’s stance that the disputes should not be brought to a multinational forum like ASEAN but instead should be negotiated by rival claimants one on one.
The Philippines and Vietnam, in contrast, have sought to draw international attention to the disputes, warning that Chinese aggression in the South China Sea could block freedom of navigation in the strategic and busy waters, which Beijing claims virtually in their entirety.
Washington has said the peaceful resolution of the territorial conflicts and freedom of navigation are in the U.S. national interest. China, however, has warned the U.S. not to interfere.
Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam has said the failure of Cambodia to forge a consensus led to the scrapping of the crucial statement, causing “a severe dent on ASEAN’s credibility.” Without the 131-paragraph statement, which dealt with wide-ranging issues like poverty, human rights and regional integration, it was not clear what ASEAN heads of state would discuss when they gather for a summit in Cambodia in November, he said.
Philippine Foreign Undersecretary Erlinda Basilio said that while her country was patient and tolerant, it “could not perpetually remain mute over the brazen acts of infringement on its territory and intimidation by a powerful country,” referring to China. Chinese and Philippine ships faced off at a disputed South China Sea shoal in April. The Philippines has withdrawn its vessels but Chinese ships have remained at Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines.
The Chinese Embassy did not reply to an Associated Press request for a comment.
Natalegawa told a news conference Wednesday that it was “critically important” for ASEAN to deal with the internal disagreements.
“If we do not do anything, we know the damage will become bigger,” he said.
He said he would try to rally Southeast Asian governments to agree on six principles on the South China Sea issue, including avoiding use of force, resolving the conflicts in accordance with international laws, and an early signing of a legally binding “code of conduct” aimed at thwarting any major armed conflict.
Indonesia was one of the founders of ASEAN in 1967. The bloc also includes Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.