Big Summits, Old Problems  (Page 2 of 3)

However, the Philippines immediately refuted the claim saying it held an inherent right to defend its interests. Sources also said Vietnam was upset by the statement and was thoroughly annoyed with Cambodia for attempting the maneuver, while Malaysia and Brunei stayed coy.

Comments from the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who said there “was a difference in emphasis and views” on the issue, were also insightful.

China does not want the dispute heard before an international court and insists that negotiations with members of ASEAN be held on a bilateral basis through a legally-binding Code of Conduct (COC), which has been discussed for the last decade. Currently, a preliminary, non-legally binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is in place.

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The COC would be legally binding and would govern tensions between the claimants to the South China Sea while the parties conduct further negotiations aimed at reaching final agreements on the sovereignty issues.

The Philippines and Vietnam, however, want ASEAN to present a united front to China in multilateral negotiations, which would also suit the interests of the two other ASEAN claimants, Malaysia and Brunei.

It remains unlikely that small countries like Brunei would ever be in a diplomatic position to negotiate with China squarely over territorial claims.

As the summit ended it appeared that, at least for the time being, neither China nor the Philippines and Vietnam China would not have its way in terms of negotiating the various disputes. Furthermore, Cambodia’s advocacy of China’s position again led to charges that Phnom Penh was giving China’s interests priority over those of the ASEAN bloc.

But as ASEAN turns on an annual basis, so does its agenda. Brunei will be the next chair of ASEAN and the new ASEAN Secretary-General, Le Luong Minh, is from Vietnam, while Thailand – seen as fairly neutral in the dispute – has been elected as country coordinator on the issue.

This represents a significant political shift within the bloc — away from the Cambodian attempt to lead a pro-China lobby and curry favor with Beijing — towards ASEAN members with stakes in the dispute.

A united ASEAN approach to China is now a distinct possibility, leaving Wen Jiabao with the task of trying to put the best face on the issue.

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