Oct 16, 2012

ASEAN - US pledges South China Sea neutrality

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Asean meeting to urge Beijing to rejoin talks

The United States will remain impartial in South China Sea conflicts and wants territorial disputes to be solved peacefully, Samuel J Locklear III, commander of the US Pacific Command, was quoted as saying during his visit to Thailand.

The four-star admiral affirmed the US stance as he and US ambassador to Thailand Kristie Kenney yesterday paid a courtesy call to Thanongsak Apirakyothin, permanent secretary for defence.

The meeting was marked as an introduction of Adm Locklear to his Thai counterpart before the US admiral officially assumes his post, Defence Ministry spokesman Thanathip Sawangsaeng said.

The spokesman quoted Adm Locklear as saying the US was committed to maintaining peace on the Korean peninsula to ensure regional maritime security.

The US military also wants South China Sea territory disputes to be solved through dialogue and peaceful measures, Col Thanathip quoted Adm Locklear as saying, adding that the US would not take sides in any potential conflict.

The military relationship between the US and China will move ahead peacefully, Adm Locklear reportedly said, adding that Thailand would benefit from this relationship as it has strong ties with both countries.

It comes ahead of Thailand's hosting of the Asean-China senior officials' retreat on Oct 25 to discuss the South China Sea disputes, prior to the Asean Summit in Phnom Penh midway through next month.

A government source said Bangkok will host the Asean-China meeting. Thailand took a leading role attempting to reach a compromise on South China Sea territorial disputes between China and other Asean nations.

Thailand is the country coordinator for Asean and China relations, with its three-year term due to end in July 2015.

The same government source said Asean and China will continue to work to abide by the commitments outlined in the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

They will also hold a meeting to discuss the development of a code of conduct (COC) to ensure disputes do not escalate.

The source said the meeting will table guidelines for negotiations between Asean and China over the coming year, and urge China to return to the discussion table on the COC.

Foreign Ministry permanent secretary Sihasak Phuangkhetkaew will chair the meeting, along with other senior officials from Asean countries. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying will represent China.

Asean Foreign Ministers failed to issue their customary chairman's statement during their annual meeting last July in Cambodia, after they failed to reach a consensus on the South China Sea issue. It was the first time a regional conference ended without a joint statement in the bloc's 45-year history.

Tensions over the territorial disputes also increased in the last several months between the Philippines and China and between Vietnam and China.

One conflict, which lasted several months, involved a standoff between lightly armed Chinese and Philippine vessels at Scarborough Shoal off the coast of the Philippines.

Another centred on a law enacted in Vietnam claiming sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands, which China also claims.

In addition to the Philippines and Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia, also members of Asean, claim territory in the South China Sea, as do China and Taiwan.

Wassana Nanuam & Thanida Tansubhapol

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