Phnom Penh (AsiaNews / Agencies) - The South China Sea territorial disputes have prevented - and is the first time in 45 years - ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian nations, from concluding the foreign ministers meeting with a joint statement. The disputes and controversies that marked the meeting continued well beyond the summit conclusion.
The main bone of contention are islands, which, at times are mere rocks, scattered throughout the South China Sea, rich in natural resources, including gas and, in all probability, oil. China claims sovereignty over almost all of these territories. Beijing's claims are opposed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan which, in turn, advance rights on some islands.
Thus, the Spratlys and Paracel are at the center of a dispute between China and Vietnam and the Scarborough Shoal (pictured) sees Beijing against Manila.
In Phnom Penh, where the 10 nation summit ended yesterday, two main factions collided: the Chinese who want the resolution of disputes through bilateral agreements and those who prefer a "Code of Conduct" on a multilateral basis. The latter was put forward by several countries, including the United States. Proponents of this approach argue that bi-lateral negotiations would be unbalanced, given China's power. Before the meeting the development of a set of rules on maritime rights and navigation was also announced, as well as the procedures to be followed in case of disagreements between nations. But China is not an ASEAN member country and has rejected these all outright.
Despite being absent - and for this very reason - Beijing still brought to bear the weight of its positions. Chinese diplomats were already in Phnom Penh before the beginning of the summit, and the host country has been accused of having protected China's interests. The Philippines openly accused Cambodia of as much and the Thai Foreign Minister noted Phnom Penh was "consistently opposed to any mention of the islands" and repeatedly insisted that it was not possible to issue a joint statement.
Indonesia's foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, very committed to reaching an agreement, expressed "deep disappointment". "There is still - he added - a common opinion that we should at least increase our efforts to work on a Code of Conduct and begin our discussions with China on the Code"