Beijing warns against stirring South China Sea dispute at Asean summit

China hopes to keep disputes over access to oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea off the agenda at this week's regional security summit.

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BEIJING // China hopes to keep disputes over the South China Sea’s oil and gas reserves off the agenda at a regional security summit this week as the Philippines criticised what it calls Beijing’s “aggressive” stance on maritime disputes.

The Philippines yesterday said it would invite bids from companies keen to exploit hydrocarbon reserves in three blocs within its “exclusive economic zone” in the South China Sea, with officials insisting China had not raised objections despite claiming nearly all the sea as its own.

Liu Weimin, the spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, said on Tuesday that the two-day Asean Regional Forum (ARF) in Cambodia, which features all 10 Association of South East Asian (Asean) members plus other powers, was “not an appropriate venue for discussing the South China Sea”.

His remarks were an apparent rebuke to the United States secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who said at a press conference in Vietnam on Tuesday that the disputes were a “critical issue” that needed to be resolved.

In a sign of continued sensitivities ahead of the forum’s start today, the Philippine foreign secretary, Albert del Rosario, said yesterday that China was “becoming more aggressive every day” when it came to disputed maritime territory. The Philippines has recently been in dispute with China over rocky outcrops in the South China Sea known as the Scarborough Shoal.

His comments came as a long-running dispute between China and Japan over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea flared again, with Beijing saying yesterday it had “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands, which it calls Diaoyu, but which are known as Senkaku in Japan, the country that controls them.

Tokyo summoned the Chinese ambassador after several Chinese patrol vessels sailed up to the islands, an action that followed the announcement of a Japanese government plan to buy three of them from a private owner.

Asean foreign ministers yesterday held talks over recent proposals for a binding code of conduct for the areas, an initiative that follows at least 22 serious incidents in the waters over the past three years, according to a report released this week by the Washington DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

China, which has recently seen tensions rise with Vietnam and the Philippines in particular, is reluctant to allow territorial disputes to be resolved through the code of conduct, AFP reported yesterday.

The Chinese would prefer to use bilateral negotiations to resolve its claims, which conflict with those of Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei, and is wary of regional forums that put it up against a bloc of nations.

In the CSIS report, the authors Ernest Bower and Prashanth Parameswaran said that although Cambodia had kept the South China Sea off the summit agenda “for fear of antagonising China”, the subject “will certainly be tabled by some of the Asean ministers”.

Disputes have flared as a result of a “vicious circle” in which competing countries feel they have to ratchet up claims in response to actions by rival claimants, said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong.

“They’re pressured by domestic nationalist sentiment, so they have to be seen to be upholding their sovereignty and territorial rights. That means you have a lot of confrontations that may escalate,” he said.

“At the same time, all the countries concerned do not want the incidents to get out of hand.”

Late last month, tensions developed when Vietnam Oil and Gas Corp cautioned China National Offshore Oil Corporation against allowing foreign companies to look for hydrocarbon reserves in parts of the South China Sea for which the Vietnamese company had already handed out concessions to overseas firms including Exxon Mobil.

Vietnam Oil and Gas Corp, also known as PetroVietnam, urged foreign companies not to bid for concessions and, reports said, it warned companies that it would "unwaveringly oppose" any that did make agreements with China.