Territory disputes could overshadow Asian leaders' talks

Posted: November 18, 2012

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - Disputes over South China Sea territories are expected to overshadow a summit of Southeast Asian countries that opened Saturday, with host Cambodia seeking damage control after the previous regional meeting it hosted collapsed over how to handle the territorial conflicts involving China.

President Obama will join the summit on Tuesday in his first appearance on the world diplomatic stage since his reelection. His Southeast Asian trip - which is to include the first visit to Myanmar by a U.S. president - will highlight America's pivot to the economically vibrant region as a counterweight to China's rapid rise, but is also likely to see him tread on a tightrope over delicate regional issues such as the territorial rifts and human rights.

Foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, met at a convention center in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, where about 10,000 troops and police were deployed to guard the biggest international gathering the country has hosted in recent history. Army commandos, armed with machine guns and donning knee and elbow pads, prowled around the venue.

ASEAN heads of state will gather Sunday before meeting with dialogue counterparts from eight countries, including China and the United States.

Founded as an anti-communist club in 1967 during the Cold War era, ASEAN prides itself on having united an unwieldy collective of liberal democracies and authoritarian states in one regional bloc. But the grouping - which has been tested by all sorts of crises and disputes - unraveled at another regional summit last July when host Cambodia tangled with Vietnam and the Philippines on the handling of the South China Sea issue.

Cambodia, which has long been economically dependent on China, refused to allow mention of the territorial disputes in a post-conference communique as demanded by Vietnam and the Philippines, sparking a high-profile verbal squabble. The rift scuttled the issuance of any communique in an unprecedented moment of ASEAN disunity.

China, which has been locked in the disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, and three other governments, has tried in vain to keep the conflicts from international forums such as ASEAN. The Philippines and Vietnam, with the backing of Washington, however, have taken steps to raise international awareness of the problem, which they said could threaten the stability and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, through which a major bulk of the world's oil and cargo passes.

ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said later Saturday that the disputes were raised by some ministers in a general way, avoiding specific details of the disagreements. They discussed how to assuage fears over the conflicts, which Surin warned have begun affecting "foreign investments coming in, concern about the safety," access to the waters and energy security.

The governments under the bloc have realized they would have to forge a common ground on such issues to safeguard the organization about two years before an ambitious plan to turn the region of 600 million people into an EU-like community that could compete with Asian powerhouses such as China and India.

Obama and his Philippine and Vietnamese counterparts are expected to separately reiterate the need to ensure the disputes do not destabilize the region and block access to the South China Sea, which Beijing has claimed in its entirety.

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