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Selasa, 19 Juli 2011

Asian ministers discuss South China Sea, security

Territorial disputes and flare-ups in the South China Sea were expected to take center stage at Asia's largest security forum this week, after Vietnam and the Philippines accused China of interfering in efforts to explore for oil and gas.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono noted ahead of closed-door talks that it's been nine years since the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China agreed to negotiate a code of conduct in the potentially resource-rich waterway.

"Things do not necessarily have to be this slow," he said, adding "some progress" was long-overdue.

He said ASEAN needed to send a "strong signal" to the world that the situation in the region, a strategical shipping lane, is "predictable" and "manageable."

Southeast Asian ministers - on Indonesia's resort island of Bali for their annual get-together - will be joined later in the week by officials from Asia-Pacific, Europe and the United States for the much more important ASEAN Regional Forum.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, now in India, will be among those attending. So will China's foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, and Pak Ui-Chun of North Korea.

Hot topics on the table include Pyongyang's nuclear crisis, the slow pace of democratic reforms in military-dominated Myanmar and international efforts to end a border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand.

Overshadowing talks, however, will be conflicting claims in the South China Sea.

The sparring is primarily over the Spratlys, nearby Paracels and Scarborough Shoal, a slew of tiny, mostly uninhabited islands, some no more than a half-submerged coral reef and surrounding waters.

China claims the entire area, a large swath extending far from its southern coast and overlapping with the 230-mile (370-kilometer) exclusive economic zones of the Philippines and Vietnam and, to a lesser degree, of Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

The smaller Southeast Asian nations often look for backing from the U.S., which is eager to protect strategic shipping lanes in the waters and deepen its own military ties in the region. That only serves to further irk China.

Clinton was expected to touch on the issue, but only indirectly, sources in Washington told reporters.

Beijing has already called recent U.S. military exercises in the region inappropriate, though they were planned well before the latest dispute.

Vietnam says on two occasions since May, China cut cables used by its ships to conduct seismic tests on the sea floor. And last week, just as it appeared that temperatures were starting to cool, a Vietnamese border official alleged that a fishing boat was chased and attacked by Chinese soldiers, who beat up the boat captain.

The Philippines has similar complaints, saying in March two Chinese naval ships threatened one of their ships exploring for gas in an area known as Red Bank.

Beijing, while denying cutting cables, acknowledges incidents took place in what it said was its waters.

Southeast Asian officials are expected to hold their first direct talks with China on Wednesday.

ASEAN, founded in 1967, groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. It admitted Myanmar in 1997, despite strong opposition from Western nations.

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