Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Asean 'has role to play in S. China Sea spat'

ASEAN can play a role in the South China Sea disputes by ensuring that peace prevails in the region, but the regional bloc should not take part directly in talks between claimants, a senior Chinese diplomat said.

Doing so would be equivalent to Asean taking sides, Vice-Foreign Minister Fu Ying said at an interview on Saturday during a one-day visit here. She reiterated China's stand that negotiation over conflicting claims in the South China Sea should take place between claimants bilaterally.

She made the analogy of herself and this reporter having a dispute, in explaining her country's stance.

"If you and I have a dispute, I say this is mine and you say this is yours and she [another reporter at the interview] comes with you to contend with me, do you think it is fair?" she asked. "It is equivalent to her taking sides."

"We have to face the problem ourselves, we have to trust each other and face it."

She added that whether it was one or 10 persons on one side of the table - alluding to the 10 members of Asean - it would not strengthen the side's position. "It cannot change your position."

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said in Beijing on Thursday that while Asean is neutral and does not take sides in individual disputes, it should play a role. He saw that role as providing a framework within which issues could be discussed and peacefully managed, if not totally resolved.

"If Asean does not play a role, and it is completely on the basis of one versus one", China as a big country may be able to have an advantage in the issue, he said.

Fu said that China supported Asean's centrality and its playing a role in safeguarding the region's peace and stability. "But this does not mean that Asean should speak for any one country, because if Asean takes sides, then it will be very difficult."

Asean as a grouping should stay neutral, "otherwise it will have no authority to engage this issue", she said.

In written answers to reporters' questions that supplemented the interview, she said: "In China, many are watching and wondering if Asean were to stay firm on matters of principle or become a spokesperson for certain countries."

Soft-spoken and with a ready smile, Fu stood China's ground firmly.

She put the blame for current tensions in the South China Sea squarely on some rival claimants who "have made repeated provocations in the South China Sea which came as a shock for the Chinese people".

She refused to name specific situations, but said these were in violation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that stipulated that signatories should resolve disputes through peaceful means and refrain from conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate the disputes.

A tense stand-off between Chinese and Philippine naval ships in April over the disputed Scarborough Shoal had ensued after the Philippine navy boarded some Chinese fishing vessels there.

In June, Vietnam passed laws declaring sovereignty over the disputed Paracels and Spratlys, prompting the Chinese to set up the new Sansha city and a military garrison on an island in the Paracels.

Asked if the Code of Conduct (COC), which Asean is pushing to manage territorial disputes in the South China Sea, would be discussed at year end, Fu said that there was no discussion of a specific timeframe, signalling that Beijing was in no hurry to negotiate the COC.

Nevertheless, she spelt out that discussion of the COC should be held among participants as equals rather than "one side imposing its views onto the other", and that it should aim to promote peace and stability in the South China Sea, rather than reinforcing some parties' claims.

Asean members are discussing the COC among themselves first before they sit down with China.

Fu on Saturday also sought to reassure smaller countries in the region that Beijing has no intention of bullying its smaller neighbours, saying it sees good relations with its neighbours "as a sure path towards a greater global role".

She said China was committed to peace in the region, but that "we don't wish for anyone to come and undermine this". She was unwilling to specify whom she meant, saying with a laugh: "China is a major power, so it has to be polite, be a gentleman."

In recent months, Chinese people and officials have chafed at what they see as the United States' meddling in the South China Sea disputes.

Fu was here to follow up on Lee's official visit to China last week, to discuss with Singapore's Foreign Affairs Ministry officials bilateral cooperation as well as the November Asean summit and East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh.

She noted: "Alongside our enormous commonalities, our two countries may also see some issues differently.

"The important thing for us is to be fair-minded, respect and listen to each other and accommodate each other's concerns. Only in this way can we build mutual trust and keep the momentum of cooperation."-Asia News Network (September 10, 2012)

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