(Adds comment from ASEAN summit)
By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING/PHNOM PENH Nov 17 A regional summit in
Cambodia should not be overshadowed by a dispute over the South
China Sea as the situation is under control and countries
involved can resolve differences themselves, a top Chinese
diplomat said on Saturday.
China's assertion of sovereignty over the stretch of water
off its south coast and to the east of mainland Southeast Asia
has set it directly against Vietnam and the Philippines, while
Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also lay claim to parts, making it
Asia's biggest potential military trouble spot.
But Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying said the dispute
was well in hand, ahead of a meeting beginning this weekend of
regional leaders in Cambodia attended by Southeast Asian heads
of states as well as China's Premier Wen Jiabao and U.S.
President Barack Obama.
"As soon as this region is bought up everyone thinks it's
very dangerous, very turbulent, because of the South China Sea
issue. In fact, over the past few years, China and the countries
surrounding the South China Sea have successfully controlled the
dispute and not let it intensify," Fu told reporters.
Asia's experience since the end of the Cold War of avoiding
large-scale conflict showed that the South China Sea issue was
also manageable, she said.
China, however, has resisted proposals for multilateral
talks on the sea, preferring to try to negotiate disputes with
each of the far less powerful individual claimants. It has also
opposed Washington's attempts to get involved.
Unprecedented arguments over a push to introduce a code of
conduct, or common approach, to territorial tension with China
led to the collapse of a summit of Southeast Asian leaders in
July, preventing the issuing of a joint communique by the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for the first
time in its 45-year history.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said such
disarray within the bloc could not be repeated.
"We cannot allow ourselves the luxury of a similar
disunity," Natalegawa said in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.
"It is bad for all involved, not only for ASEAN, it's even
bad for China as well. So I think ASEAN and China are on the
same boat literally on the South China Sea."
Officials at the summit are playing down any hope of
progress on the code of conduct, though Indonesia proposed a hot
line be set up between ASEAN nations and China for use in the
event of any incidents.
"We have to be able to pick up the phone to share with
another what had happened and how we can manage and contain the
issue," Natalegawa said.
The stakes have risen in the area as the U.S. military
shifts its attention and resources back to Asia, emboldening its
long-time ally the Philippines and former foe Vietnam to take a
tougher stance against Beijing.
Fu said over the past few years there had been a
"phenomenon" of the South China Sea issue being "hyped up"
whenever there was a regional or international meeting involving
China and its ASEAN neighbours.
"Shattering the peaceful atmosphere in this way gives people
the wrong impression."
"The dispute's resolution still has to come from talks with
the countries directly involved. China and ASEAN are confident
they can maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea,
and we have already proved that we can do this," Fu said.
"We also hope that countries from outside the region, in
other words countries which are not China or ASEAN members, can
have faith in us. If you want to help, then do it in a positive
way, and not interfere or provoke."
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia,
Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
(Additional reporting by James Pomfret, Prak Chan Thul and
Manny Mogato in Phnom Penh; Editing by Robert Birsel)