07/19/2011, 00.00
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China casts its shadow on ASEAN’s annual security summit

The annual meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers began today in Bali. China, United States and other nations are attending the summit. A heated discussion is expected over the South China Sea. ASEAN is called to show its political relevance through mediation but many fear divisions among its members.
Bali (AsiaNews/Agencies) – ASEAN’s annual security meeting opened today in Bali (Indonesia) bringing together the foreign ministers of ASEAN member states (Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Laos and Myanmar) as well as invited Asia-Pacific nations like China, Japan, South Korea, United States and Australia. Observers expect territorial disputes between China and other ASEAN members in the South China Sea to overshadow the meeting.

In the past few months, China, Vietnam and the Philippines have hardened their stance over the Spratly and Paracel Islands, an issue that also concerns Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. The seabed in the disputed areas is thought to be rich in oil and gas, and Beijing has sent naval ships to the area to expel fishing boats from other countries. Fishermen have been beaten and their catch seized by Chinese sailors.

China has consistently refused any international arbitration, as other countries have demanded, insisting on bilateral solutions. At the same time, it has failed to engage other parties on a one-to-one basis, but sought instead to impose its de facto control over the area.

For other regional powers, ASEAN is an appropriate venue for discussion. Some hope the organisation might go beyond its traditional hands-off approach towards domestic affairs and transcend its focus on brokering economic agreements.

Over the past few years, China has become a privileged economic partner with all of the region’s powers. Its support is essential for the ruling military in Myanmar. With such a member, it is hard to see how ASEAN can engage in any concerted action.

The presence of the United States, whose support is crucial for Vietnam and Philippines against China, could bring the two juggernauts to a confrontation on the issue of freedom of the seas, something that both sides view as essential.

The organisation cannot ignore the problem, which could lead to permanent clashes with China, and is essential for free shipping in the South China Sea. Experts are waiting to see whether ASEAN can act on its own or whether it will remain just a forum to enhance economic cooperation.

For Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, addressing the South China Sea would be like bringing a elephant in the room and could lead to failure given how far apart the parties are.

Still, he hopes that “we can reach significant progress if there’s good faith by all parties” over the long-discussed code of conduct for the sea.

Observers also expect the meeting to discuss the border problem between Thailand and Cambodia over the ancient Buddhist temple of Preah Vihar as well as the 2014 ASEAN presidency, which should fall to Myanmar.

However, there is strong opposition to that country’s military dictatorship for its systematic violations of human rights, this despite its recent parliamentary elections.
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