PHNOM PENH - The Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) has renewed its commitment to an existing approach for resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said yesterday at the end of the regional bloc's summit.
In a statement as this year's ASEAN Chairman, Mr Hun Sen said the 10-member bloc pledged to "fully and effectively implement" the Declaration of Conduct, a framework first agreed in 2002 that sets out broad principles on conflict resolution for the South China Sea, an area of contention between China and several South-east Asian countries including the Philippines and Vietnam.
The declaration acts as a precursor to a potential narrower Code of Conduct for the disputed waters.
Countries like the Philippines want to see a code drawn up and implemented, but China has in the past been hesitant to give its support.
Mr Hun Sen said ASEAN members also agreed at the summit to encourage all parties to the dispute to resolve differences peacefully, through negotiations involving countries that are directly concerned.
China has long preferred to deal with the South China Sea dispute on a country-by-country basis, whereas the United States and others have called for a multilateral approach.
At the Phnom Penh meeting, some have advocated setting up a hotline for countries using the seas to notify each other of their activities in advance, to minimise the risk of flare-ups.
Mr Hun Sen's statement comes after officials from other ASEAN countries publicly chided their host yesterday for apparently taking China's side in the dispute.
The Cambodian Prime Minister had earlier triggered a diplomatic spat by saying ASEAN had agreed not to internationalise the issue, prompting public statements of denial from the Philippines and Singapore.
Philippine officials said repeatedly that Cambodia was incorrect in its claim, while Singapore's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that an early draft of the ASEAN Chairman's statement had misquoted leaders' discussions and that it, along with Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, had expressed that stance to the meeting's host.
Three diplomats at the ASEAN summit said Mr Hun Sen's statement had been redrafted after objections from some member countries.
The developments are a reminder that the waters remain a potential flashpoint and reflect moves by both China and the US to assert their influence in the region.
Expectations are low for progress in resolving territorial disputes over islands in the sea, which is crossed by more than half the world's total trade and is thought to contain vast energy and mineral reserves.
The islands in question are broadly claimed by China and in part by such nations as Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Talks during the ASEAN meetings have indicated Cambodia is again aligning with China in the dispute, while the Philippines has long regarded the US as its ally and a counterbalance to China in the region.
A meeting of foreign ministers in July broke up without issuing a communique for the first time in ASEAN's history, an outcome analysts blamed on host Cambodia being pressured by China.
In comments yesterday, US President Barack Obama supported a proposed multilateral approach to tackling territorial tensions in the South China Sea, while Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao stressed Beijing's right to defend its sovereignty and said ASEAN was committed not to "internationalise" the dispute.
Both leaders were in Cambodia to attend the East Asia Summit.
WORLD'S LARGEST FTA
During the summit, Asia-Pacific leaders also reached an agreement to start negotiations early next year to create what would be the largest free-trade area (FTA) in the world.
When completed, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will span 16 countries - 10 ASEAN members plus Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand - with a combined market of over three billion people and a combined GDP of about US$19.78 trillion (S$24.2 trillion) based on 2011 figures.
"With the region accounting for more than half of the global market and about a third of the global economic output, there is no doubt that a successful RCEP would significantly contribute and boost global trade and investment," said Dr Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN Secretary-General.
The leaders said they will aim to complete negotiations for the RCEP by the end of 2015.
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