ASEAN KEY DESTINATIONS
21st Asean Summit ends with compromise over sea dispute
As of yesterday afternoon, hours before the summit's close, there was still talk that several countries might disown the closing statement drawn up by chair Cambodia. At issue was a line on not internationalising the South China Sea matter.
The disagreement had started on Monday when the Philippines openly opposed a Cambodian official's remarks on how Asean nations agreed to keep the issue between Asean and China. That Cambodian claim would be reflected in a draft statement that was distributed.
It is understood that through the course of the summit, several countries, including Singapore, had asked Cambodia to correct inaccuracies in the document.
Yet, a late draft showed little change, prompting fears of a repeat of the acrimony of the Asean foreign ministers' meeting in July, when the group failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in 45 years.
Speaking to reporters, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong laid out Singapore's position. He said the world has an interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea but the sovereignty dispute is for claimant states to sort out.
"Because one third of global shipping goes through the South China Sea, so all the user states have a legitimate interest in freedom of navigation, which must not be compromised. But as far as the sovereignty claims, those have to be resolved amongst the participants, the claimant states themselves," he said.
At the East Asia Summit yesterday, he warned that "regional flashpoints, including complex territorial claims, can derail a still fragile global economy and undermine regional peace".
He also reiterated his call for China to work with Asean on a binding Code of Conduct to govern behaviour in disputed areas.
At the same meeting, United States President Barack Obama weighed in with a statement that "there needs to be a reduction of the tensions... There is no reason to risk any potential escalation, particularly when you have two of the world's largest economies - China and Japan - associated with some of those disputes".
Similarly, China said it wanted to preserve the peace. Deputy Foreign Minister Fu Ying said Premier Wen Jiabao acknowledged that the stability of Asean was crucial to the stability of Asia.
PM Lee also told reporters that the issue should not stop cooperation in other areas.
"The South China Sea is an issue, but it is not the end of the world, and it does not stop us from working together on other matters," he said.
He added: "No country can say, I give up what I have previously claimed and let the other country take it. So, to resolve the issue, I think we wait for a wiser generation to come. But to manage the problem and to prevent it from either causing friction or sparking off some unintended explosion or escalation, I think that is what we need to do."
The need for a late rescue of the chairman's statement put a dampener on a three-day summit that otherwise saw some successes. These included the adoption of the Asean Human Rights Declaration and the launch of talks for a 16-nation free-trade agreement called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
The chairmanship of Asean now passes to Brunei.
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