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The 24th ASEAN Summit drew to a close on Sunday, 11 May, with some member countries expressing satisfaction with the outcome of talks regarding the fragile South China Sea dispute.
Tensions ratcheted up last week after China positioned a huge oil rig in an area also claimed by Vietnam, with each country accusing the other of ramming its ships in the region close to the disputed Paracel Islands.
The issue has dominated the discussion among ASEAN members who met in Burma’s capital Naypyidaw this weekend.
At the close of the summit, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, said the consensus amongst ASEAN members on the issue “is an encouraging sign”.
“ASEAN was able to very quickly come to a consensus on a very urgent matter. I think this is an encouraging sign. Once again, as I have said before, ASEAN coming together is not a reflection of animosity towards anyone, because what we are reinforcing is a message of peace, a message of a peaceful settlement of disputes,” he said.
Albert del Rosario, Foreign Secretary of the Philippines, which has also staked a claim in the area, projected a similar message of unity as he left the summit.
“Well, I think we are very united and we are projecting centrality,” he said.
Tensions over the sea, which is claimed in part by four ASEAN members – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei – as well as China and Taiwan, have strained the group’s unity in recent years, resulting in an embarrassing breakdown of a summit in Cambodia in 2012.
Vietnam’s prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, had told ASEAN leaders that China was slandering his country and committing dangerous violations in disputed waters, but the 10-nation ASEAN group refrained from criticising Beijing in a summit communique. Neither President Thein Sein’s opening speech nor the final statement of the summit on Sunday touched on the China-Vietnam dispute.
China has begun official talks with ASEAN to establish maritime conduct rules for the South China Sea, but argues that territorial disputes should be discussed on a bilateral basis.
On Sunday, ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh, who is Vietnamese, said that despite holding three rounds of talks since last year, “we have not been able to engage China in substantive consultations.”
“We look forward to being able to engage China in the substantive consultations on the COC [Code of Conduct], with a view to early concluding of COC,” Minh continued.
This is the first time Burma is hosting the ASEAN summit, and in his closing remarks Thein Sein promoted unity among the member states.
“To implement our goal to make the ASEAN a peaceful, stable and prosperous community it is important to maintain the strong unity among the member states,” he said.
The summit was overshadowed by the South China Sea dispute – but a consensus to the talks is all Burma could have hoped for.