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At ASEAN, Territorial Dispute Gets Delegates’ Attention

A picture of reclamation activity in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
A picture of reclamation activity in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
At ASEAN Meeting, Territorial Dispute Getting Delegates’ Attention
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Leaders from Southeast Asian nations are meeting in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. The leaders have called for a peaceful settlement of competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. Their calls are a sign of growing tensions because of Chinese activities in the Spratly Islands.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is serving as chairman of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He told leaders of the 10-nation group on Monday to follow peaceful settlement claims in the South China Sea. Those waters are said to be rich in oil and other natural resources.

Mr. Najib urged completion of talks on a draft or planned Code of Conduct governing use of the South China Sea. Negotiations on the measure began in 2002.

“We need to peacefully manage differences closer to home, including overlapping maritime claims, without increasing tensions. Recent developments have raised concerns about the South China Sea - and given the importance of its sea lanes to international trade, it is natural that almost any occurrence there will attract global attention. ASEAN must address these developments in a proactive, but also in a positive and constructive way."

China’s land reclamation has increased tensions

Tensions over territorial claims in the South China Sea have intensified after the recent release of satellite images. They showed that China is taking steps to develop the disputed Spratly Islands. The waters around the islands are believed to be rich in oil and natural gas. Observers believe China is expanding its claim to the area by building military bases and airstrips.

South China Sea Territorial Claims
South China Sea Territorial Claims

The Spratly Islands are more than 3,000 kilometers from China. They are 860 kilometers from the Philippines and even closer to the coast of Vietnam. Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have claimed parts of the area around the islands.

In 2012, China and ASEAN did make progress in talks about the draft Code of Conduct. The goal was to protect the political, economic and territorial interests of states in the area.

Mr. Najib said he would be pressing for more progress in talks this week.

“As Chairman, Malaysia hopes that we will achieve progress in our efforts towards an early conclusion of a Code of Conduct.”

On Sunday, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario called on ASEAN to press China to immediately stop its “massive reclamations” of land. Mr. Del Rosario said China was in a position to effectively take control of the South China Sea. He said this would have effects reaching beyond Southeast Asia.

Vietnam also opposes Chinese claims in the area. Last year, violent anti-Chinese protests followed a move by China to set up an oil drilling platform in waters claimed by Vietnam. China later withdrew the structure.

However, observers note there are deep divisions in ASEAN. Many Southeast Asian countries are heavily dependent on China’s economy for their own economic growth. This makes a unified effort to balance China’s economic power a difficult issue.

For example, China is a major trading partner with Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. These countries have no claims in the South China Sea.

Also, Thailand has increased military ties with China. Links between the sides have expanded since the Thai military ousted Thailand’s government in May of last year.

In 2012, ASEAN countries failed to reach agreement over how to deal with China’s activities in the South China Sea because of divisions between its members.

I’m Mario Ritter.

Ron Corben reported this story for VOA from Bangkok. Mario Ritter wrote it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

reclamation – n. to make land available for use by changing its condition; reclaiming land from the sea

proactive – adj. controlling a situation by making things happen or by preparing for future problems

conduct – n. the way that a person or group behaves in a place or situation; v. to guide or lead; to direct the performance of someone or something

How do you think ASEAN should deal with the territorial dispute? Let us know in the comment section below.