ASEAN vows to promote talks with China on S. China Sea code of conduct

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Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Wednesday vowed to advance negotiations with China on a legally binding code of conduct aimed at reducing territorial and maritime conflicts in the South China Sea, a potential flashpoint that could destabilize the region.

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“We looked forward to intensifying official consultations with China on the development of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea with a view to its early conclusion,” said a chairman’s statement issued after the ASEAN summit in Brunei, referring to the talks the two sides launched in September.

But Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, in a meeting with ASEAN leaders later Wednesday, appeared cool to such an initiative, saying Beijing does not want to “internationalize” the disputes and prefers to address them bilaterally with other claimants, according to an ASEAN diplomatic source.

China’s increasingly assertive claim to most of the disputed sea — which has some of the world’s busiest shipping routes and is believed to be rich in oil and gas — overlaps claims from Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

While lobbying some ASEAN members to prevent the 10-member bloc from forging consensus on the South China Sea issue, China has warned the United States not to intervene in the disputes.

The United States has not publicly taken sides, but U.S. officials have reiterated Washington’s “vital interest” in freedom of navigation in the sea and its eagerness to see a COC signed.

Speaking in a background briefing en route to Brunei, a senior U.S. State Department official said Wednesday the United States will encourage ASEAN to ensure “increased coherence and unity” among the members to strengthen their position vis-a-vis China in negotiating the binding code.

Beijing favors a looser set of guidelines for the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which was signed by ASEAN and China in 2002 to ensure the peaceful resolution of disputes in strategic sea lanes.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s cancellation of a planned trip to attend the East Asia Summit slated for Thursday in Brunei, where maritime security in the South China Sea and the East China Sea is expected to draw attention, has raised doubts over the U.S. rebalancing of its strategic focus toward Asia, which is widely seen as a move to check China’s rise.

Obama was scheduled to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, held earlier this week in Bali, Indonesia, and the 18-member East Asia Summit, but plans were scuttled amid the U.S. government’s partial shutdown, the first in 18 years, due to failure to pass the budget.

“Mr. Obama’s absence at the two meetings does not change America’s position as the paramount power in the Asia-Pacific. However, it’s embarrassing, sends the wrong signals to Asia about America’s commitment to regional institutions, and undermines the credibility of the U.S. ‘pivot,'” said Ian Storey, senior fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

“America’s domestic problems will also be negatively contrasted with China’s rising power, economic heft, political influence and growing self-confidence on the world stage,” Storey was quoted as saying in Wednesday’s edition of the Brunei Times newspaper.

At the ASEAN summit, the leaders expressed concern about the use of chemical weapons in Syria and underscored the importance of resolving the crisis in a peaceful manner, according to the chairman’s statement.

The leaders called for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and for increased dialogue among countries in Northeast Asia to achieve an early resumption of the six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, it said.

They confirmed steady growth and upbeat outlooks in the ASEAN economy and emphasized the importance of deepening and broadening economic integration to achieve the ASEAN Economic Community by 2015.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.PNA

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