Jul 04, 2013

    Don't get hopes up over sea-row talks

    PHILIPPINE Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario walked into a regional security forum this week to hear his Chinese counterpart, Mr Wang Yi, reel off a list of complaints against Manila for stirring tensions over the South China Sea.

    Mr del Rosario was not scheduled to speak but, after hearing Mr Wang's speech at Sunday's closed-door meeting in Brunei, he raised his hand and proceeded to rebut China's allegations one by one, according to Philippine diplomats.

    The departure from the usual diplomatic niceties that mark such multilateral gatherings was the latest display of animosity over competing claims in the oil-rich South China Sea, one of Asia's most dangerous military flashpoints.

    Despite rare progress towards easing tensions between China and South-east Asian nations at the meeting, a binding agreement remains a distant prospect, with Beijing seen in no rush to limit a growing naval reach that is alarming neighbours such as Vietnam and the Philippines.

    "My response was simply that the core issue is China has taken the position that they have indisputable sovereignty over nearly the entire South China Sea," Mr del Rosario told reporters later. "Since that is a grossly excessive claim, we need to settle this in accordance with international law. So I asked everyone to support that."

    China's agreement later that day to hold talks with Asean on maritime rules appeared to mark a new chapter in efforts to resolve the dispute. After years of resisting efforts by Asean to start talks on a proposed code of conduct, China said it would host talks between senior officials in September.

    However, the code would not touch on countries' territorial claims, but would set "rules of the road" for actions by ships, aiming to minimise the risk of a misstep that could lead to conflict.

    The talks will be relatively low level and were carefully described in the joint Asean-China statement on Sunday as "consultations" rather than "negotiations" - an important nuance that signals that no real progress is likely.

    China also succeeded in securing Asean's agreement to involve a board of experts such as academics and former diplomats - so-called "eminent persons" - in guiding the process. Asean countries had previously been against this, amid concerns that it will result in further delays.

    A United States official who attended the Brunei meeting said the talks were welcome, but were by no means a breakthrough.

    Still, the Philippines appeared to welcome the progress, even if it was scant.

    "It's more than a chit-chat," Mr Evan Garcia, the Philippines' Deputy Foreign Secretary, told reporters. "We have to start the process."

    Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul described Sunday's agreement as "very significant", but most other Asean ministers gave it a more cautious welcome.

    Dr Marty Natalegawa, Indonesia's Foreign Minister, said: "Breakthrough makes it sound very dramatic."