Asean ministers concerned over developments in Spratlys

Parties urged to resolve problem quickly.

ASEAN Foreign Ministers yesterday expressed serious concern over recent developments in the South China Sea and urged claimant states to refrain from actions that could destabilise the region.

In a joint statement, they called for an early resolution of problems in the Mischief Reef, one of the tiny but potentially oil-wealthy Spratly Islands.

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia have all laid claims to all or part of the Spratlys.

Last month, Beijing said it had built what it described as shelters for its fishermen on the Mischief Reef, 135 nautical miles west of the Philippines.

Manila charged that this was part of a Chinese naval build-up.

The foreign ministers called on the various parties to “remain faithful to the letter and spirit of the Manila Declaration on the South China Sea”, which was issued in July 1992 to resolve differences by peaceful means.

“We urge countries in the region to undertake cooperative activities which increase trust and confidence and promote stability in the area,” they said.

The statement from the six foreign ministers came at the end of a two-day meeting of Asean senior officials at the Beaufort hotel resort on Sentosa.

Datuk Lim Jock Seng, Permanent Secretary of Brunei’s Foreign Ministry and chairman of the closed-door meeting, told The Sunday Times that the statement was a result of on-going consultations among member countries after last week’s incident in the Spratlys.

“This is Asean solidarity,” he said, stressing that the situation warranted greater concern because an Asean country – the Philippines – was involved.

He said: “We wanted to signal our intention that the problem should be settled by dialogue.”

Both Manila and Beijing will hold talks to try and resolve their differences in the area.

Philippines Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Rodolfo Severino is due to meet China’s vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Tang Jiaxuan in Beijing today to discuss the matter.

Mr Kamil Jaafar, Secretary-General of Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry, said that the Spratlys dispute would also be brought up for discussion at the 18-member Asean Regional Forum (ARF) in Brunei this year.

He added that senior officials had ploughed through various “confidence-building” measures for the ARF and were to agree on a common position before taking it further with the world’s major powers in May.

Asean officials had their first meeting on how to speed up implementation of the ARF in Brunei in November, following the inaugural ministerial talks regarding the security forum in Bangkok in July last year.

Nearly 40 proposals for building greater confidence were discussed by officials yesterday in a “concept paper” on the ARF.

These included exchange of military personnel and preparation of defence white papers by Asean countries.

“The whole purpose is to ensure greater transparency in the region,” Mr Kamil said, adding that in the long term, the aim was to develop the ARF into a mechanism to resolve regional disputes.

Besides regional security, officials also discussed dates for the Europe-Asia summit.

A Thai official attending the talks said that while a date had not been finalised, it was likely to be between February and April next year.

Thailand has agreed to host the summit, proposed by Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong during his visit to France and Switzerland in October last year.

The Republic originally proposed that the summit be held in December in Bangkok, immediately after the fifth Asean summit.

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