Foreign ministers discuss sea pact

HUA HIN, Thailand (dpa) – Southeast Asian foreign ministers arrived in the Thai beach resort of Hua Hin Tuesday for a meeting expected to focus on addressing conflicts in the South China Sea and consolidating relations with Beijing.

His Royal Highness Prince Mohamed Bolkiah, Brunei’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, last evening joined other Foreign Ministers of Asean at a Welcoming Dinner hosted by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand, Surapong Tovichakchaikul, at the Hilton Hua Hin Resort and Spa Hotel.

At an Asean foreign ministers meeting in Brunei in July, China agreed to start negotiations on a Code of Conduct (COC) for territorial disputes in the South China Sea, a step it had previously refused to take.

The COC issue, which tests the generally good diplomatic ties between China and ASEAN, is not expected to be resolved quickly.

The COC is expected to be raised at a special foreign ministers’ meeting between Asean and China planned in Beijing on August 28-30 to commemorate their 10th anniversary of a “strategic partnership”.

Beijing has agreed to another special meeting of senior officials from Asean and China to begin formal talks on the COC in Suzhou, near Shanghai, tentatively set for September 14-15, said Thai Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Sihasak Phuangketkeow.

“What we really hope is that the meeting in Beijing will set a good tone for the Suzhou meeting.”

The foreign ministers meeting Wednesday in Hua Hin was to focus in part on defining Asean’s collective view on the COC.

“Indonesia believes the COC should be an action-oriented document that aims at promoting confidence in the South China Sea and avoiding incidents, and finding ways of dealing with those incidents should they arise,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said.

Since 2009, China’s sovereignty claims in the area have sparked several confrontations with rival claimants such as the Philippines and Vietnam.

Among the 10 members of Asean, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have territorial disputes with China in the disputed area, which contains oil reserves of up to 30 billion tonnes and 20 trillion cubic metres of gas reserves, according to China’s Ministry of Land and Resources.

China has in the past insisted that the South China Sea disputes need to be handled bilaterally, a stance that is not expected to change even if it eventually agrees to a COC.

The issue is one of the few trouble spots in the otherwise smooth diplomatic ties between China and Asean.

Of the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), only Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong failed to attend the meeting in Hua Hin, 150 kilometres south-west of Bangkok. - Borneo Bulletin (14 August 2013)