(Apr. 5, 2012) On April 2, 2012, foreign ministers of the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), while meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, discussed a proposed code of conduct for handling territorial disputes in the area of the South China Sea. Such disputes have long been a source of contention among the ASEAN countries, China, and Taiwan. Although no agreement was reached at the meeting, participants expressed the hope that a code could be signed with China by the end of this year. The disputed South China Sea is a major trade route, carrying one-third of all global, seaborne trade. (ASEAN Struggles with South China Sea Code, THE JAKARTA GLOBE (Apr. 2, 2012); Irwin Loy, Burma, S. China Sea Dominate ASEAN Summit Discussions, VOICE OF AMERICA NEWS (Apr. 2, 2012). ASEAN consists of Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam; ASEAN Member States, ASEAN website (2009).)
Although a set of guidelines was agreed to by China and ASEAN last year, a number of controversies remain within ASEAN on the next steps. The members are not in accord as yet on whether or not to include a dispute resolution mechanism in the code. Another point of contention in the discussion was procedural, with nations differing on how much the Chinese should be involved in the process of reaching an agreement for the management of the South China Sea resources. The Philippines argued that the ASEAN partners should agree among themselves before negotiating with Beijing; other nations felt all parties should be included from the beginning. (ASEAN Struggles with South China Sea Code, supra.) Albert del Rosario of the Philippines stated that “the difference of opinion lies in the fact that we are advocating that a draft of the COC (code of conduct) be prepared before we sit down with China.” (Id.) Marty Natalegawa, of Indonesia, argued that China's ideas should be considered before a draft is written, stating that ASEAN should “listen and … hear what China's views are so that we can really develop a position that is cohesive and coherent.” (Id.)
At present, four ASEAN members, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, plus China and Taiwan, have asserted competing, overlapping claims to parts of the South China Sea region. (Id.; Loy, supra.) In October 2011, China and Vietnam came to an accord on basic principles to follow in resolving their dispute. (Constance A. Johnson, China / Vietnam: South China Sea Agreement, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (Oct. 17, 2011).)
Singapore's Foreign Affairs Minister, K Shanmugam, speaking in connection with the recent ASEAN talks, discussed the importance of keeping the process of resolving the disputes on track:
How do disputes between countries on territorial matters … get resolved. You either resolve through force which no one wants or you have to negotiate. …
And ASEAN has provided the platform in the last couple years, for talking about these issues, the South China Sea issue and reducing the tension, providing the modality where the parties can sit down and discuss with each other.
It is not going to be easy, nor is it going to be quick or fast, but it is a process, everyone is committed to the process, it will take time and meanwhile it reduces tension. In international relations there are limits to what you can achieve. (S. Ramesh, Momentum to Resolve South China Sea Disputes Must Not Be Lost: Shanmugam, SINGAPORE NEWS (Apr. 2, 2012).)