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Region on edge as tensions mount

This is not my usual blog-style I know….but things are getting real exciting in Phnom Penh. And old habits die hard.

PHNOM Penh – Tensions are mounting here as the big players arrive for the annual Asean Regional Forum amid controversial moves over the South China Sea.

The Philippines, the most vocal opponent of China’s claims over a slice of the ocean, today  decided to bid out three parcels of the disputed territory to oil companies. Coming on the day of Asean-China talks, it amounts to a deliberate provocation, complicating Asean’s bid to find a way to ease tensions.

In fact, Filippino representatives have been deliberately cool towards their Chinese counterparts. While various Asean members, including Vietnam, a South China Sea claimant, are scheduling bilateral meetings with the Chinese along the sidelines of the annual Asean ministerial meeting, the Filippinos are practically pouting.

Yet the Manila move is no different from what China had done earlier – with Vietnam. It too had bid out blocks which Vietnam also claims, after Vietnam approved internal legislation claiming the territory as their own.

But Vietnam, a co-chair of the Asean-China meeting held today, has maintained a stiff upper lip during the run-up to the meetings, even as it quietly endorses the street demonstrations that are taking place in Hanoi. Media reports in Vietnam deliberately down play the Asean meetings that relate to  the conflict, perhaps with an eye on placating the resident super power.

The tit-for-tat game being played out over the resource-rich area that started in April and has been escalating since, is taking a toll on Asean’s efforts to draw up a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. The Philippines wants a united Asean front, a binding pact that will take the matter all the way to the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, where it stands the best chance of flying its flag over Scarborough Shoal.

Other Asean members are chary of such a move, which will anger and alienate the Chinese further. Already, harsh noises are being heard from Beijing warning others against “hyping” the issue, making it an “Asean versus China” matter, or even placing it formally on the Asean agenda. It is sticking to its guns: Only bilateral settlements with individual  Asean claimants can serve as the final resolution to the dispute.

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The Asean meetings had started promisingly enough earlier this week, with the Chinese agreeing to start discussions with Asean on the code, possibly in September. But Asean members are now divided on the elements that should be included in the code, with the Philippines wanting specific mention of past clashes.  An Asean-China meeting today was delayed for an hour by the Chinese delegation, leading to speculation that it was unhappy with the draft of a joint communique on the meeting.

The United States can be expected to weigh in. Hillary Clinton, after a whirlwind tour of Vietnam and Laos, arrived as scheduled for the Asean-US meeting, held immediately after that for the Chinese. She reiterated the US’ “enduring commitment” to its “elevated strategic priority in foreign policy” – Asia. The ensueing superpower rivalry has caused some concern among Asean members that the region will yet again become a pawn in the power game. Yet others see some gain, either in terms of extracting concessions or having both superpowers keeping each other on a leash.

The South China Sea dispute will draw in other players too. Malaysia and Brunei are claimants as well but seem to be keeping well out of the firing line.

Another more- than- interested onlooker is Japan, an Asean dialogue partner, which is also in a territorial tussle with China.  Today, three Chinese patrol boats approached a remote chain of islands which the Japanese call Senkaku in the East China Sea. Japan summoned the Chinese ambassador, a representation which Beijing was swift to reject. Today, their respective foreign minsters traded barbed words.

Tomorrow is going to be an interesting day.

PS: I would have done more due diligence and added more background on South China Sea…but, hey, it’s a blog lah.

Written By

An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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