Tensions flare over S China Sea at Asean meet

Alternative diplomatic routes for the Philippines would likely involve the United States, a close ally which has said it has a national interest in freedom of navigation through the South China Sea's vital shipping lanes. Cambodia's political and economic ties with China have strengthened in recent years.

Asean on Sunday agreed to formally ask China to start talks on a code of conduct (CoC) aimed at easing the risk of naval flashpoints, according to its secretary general, Surin Pitsuwan. But Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao appeared to play down the need for urgent action in talks on Sunday night with Hun Sen. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Ging said he could not recall Hun Sen making a formal request for talks.

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 US allies Vietnam and the Philippines, while Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also lay claim to parts, making it Asia's biggest potential military trouble spot.

Thailand, which holds the position of Asean's official coordinator with China, appeared to support the US view that countries beyond Asean and China had a national interest in resolving the dispute. While the territorial dispute itself was a matter for the parties concerned, issues such as maritime security and freedom of navigation were an international concern, said Sihasak Phuangketkeow, permanent secretary at Thailand's foreign ministry. If it comes to the broader issue of maritime security, meaning freedom of navigation, security of sea lanes, I think that is a concern of all countries, he told reporters.

The tensions illustrate the difficulty of forging a Southeast Asian consensus over how to deal with an increasingly assertive China. Southeast Asia had hoped avoid a repeat of an embarrassing breakdown of talks in July over competing claims in the mineral-rich waters, its biggest security challenge. Washington insists its pivot is not about containing China or a permanent return to military bases of the past, but it has increased its military presence in the Philippines and other areas near vital sea lanes and border disputes in the South China Sea that have raised tensions with China.

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