MANILA, Philippines (PNA) – The territorial disputes in the strategic West Philippine Sea would likely steal the spotlight in next week’s Association of South East Asian Nations Regional Forum (ARF) that would be attended by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and 26 other foreign ministers despite China’s objections.
Clinton and Southeast Asian nations at odds with China over disputed territories in the resource-rich South China Sea, or West Philippine Sea to Manila, plan to tackle the issue at the ARF, Asia’s largest security forum, to be held July 8 to 12 in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.
The Philippine delegation led by Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario is expected to raise the recent conflicts between Manila and Beijing over the Bajo de Masinloc and the Spratly Islands during the discussions under the topics, which, according to a Department of Foreign Affairs statement, include “maritime security” and “regional and international issues.”
China, which claims the sea nearly in its entirety including in areas that overlap with Philippine territories, has objected to efforts to bring the sea disputes to any international arena.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said that next week’s ASEAN meetings should not be used as a pulpit by claimant countries to ventilate the issue, which it wants to be discussed bilaterally with each claimant country like the Philippines and Vietnam.
“The Chinese side believes that ARF Foreign Ministers Meetings is an important platform for enhancing mutual trust and strengthening cooperation, not the right place to discuss South China Sea issue,” Liu said in Beijing.
In contrast, Philippine Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said “the objective of the ARF is to allow member states to discuss and consult on political and security issues of common interest and concern of members states” such as the South China Sea disputes.
“And this issue is a regional issue. It’s a regional and political issue,” Hernandez told PNA.
US State Department officials also plan to discuss the territorial conflicts, expressing interest in pushing for a legally binding regional code of conduct that would discourage aggression and prevent possible armed confrontations in the South China Sea.
Although not a party to the territorial row, Washington has declared that it is in its national interest to ensure the conflicts are resolved peacefully and that there is freedom of navigation in the busy waters, a strategic shipping route where a large bulk of world trade passes through.
Vietnam is also seen to raise the issue after it protested China’s plan to offer oil and gas exploration service contracts to investors in nine areas Hanoi says fall well within Vietnamese territory.
The crowded ASEAN agenda in Phnom Penh also include non-proliferation, human rights, protection of migrant workers, human trafficking, climate change, disaster management, biodiversity, ASEAN community and connectivity, trade and investments and micro small-medium enterprises, and renewable energy.
But the long-simmering territorial rifts have alarmed the rival countries as well as other Asian and western nations which fear the conflicts could turn nasty and restrict free access to the vital waters, also coveted for their potential oil and gas deposits and abundant fish stocks.
At least three major island groups are being contested by China and five other claimants – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The disputed territories include the Spratly Islands and Bajo de Masinloc, where China and the Philippines have had recent confrontations.
Host Cambodia, a key Chinese ally in Asia, has been criticized for allegedly towing Beijing’s position, but its officials have given assurances they would serve as an impartial chairman of this year’s meetings.
Philippine officials, however, say Cambodia does not have much choice because any member country can speak out and raise any issue when ASEAN ministers meet informally during the so called “retreat sessions.”
Many fear the disputed South China Sea could spark Asia’s next major armed conflict but analysts predict major players like China and the US would not risk starting an economically devastating armed confrontation.
The proposed code of conduct in the South China Sea could keep things under control and buy time for rival claimant countries to build trust, perhaps, undertake joint development while the territorial disputes remain unresolved.
But China and rival claimants like the Philippines are divided as well on how the code should be shaped. The meetings in Cambodia are aimed at sorting out those differences and striking an elusive consensus.
The threat of a looming conflict, uncertainties and unsettling tensions in the disputed waters may force the rival nations to forge a consensus and agree on a code of conduct to foster trust and cooperation in the contested areas while the territorial disputes hang indefinitely. Or as they often say in ASEAN – they can agree to disagree.