Asian nations feud over South China Sea
Chinese fishing boats sail in the lagoon of Meiji reef off the island province of Hainan in the South China Sea. Photo: AP
Phnom Penh: Tensions over rival territorial claims in the South China Sea have flared at a meeting of Asia leaders, overshadowing wider talks Tuesday on security, economics and trade.
Intense diplomatic efforts to allow the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations to present a united front on the issue broke down ahead of the East Asian Summit, a forum of 18 world leaders, including Barack Obama and Julia Gillard.
Cambodia, this year's chair of ASEAN and a close ally of China, said on Monday that ASEAN had agreed not to "internationalise" the disputes, supporting China premier Wen Jiabao who repeated his country's stand they should not be discussed at multilateral events such as the summit or in ASEAN.
But the Philippines denied any agreement had been reached. "How can there be consensus? A consensus is 100 percent. How can it be consensus when two of us are saying we're not with it?," Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert de Rosario told reporters.
Officials who attended private talks between ASEAN and China said Philippine president Benigno Aquino raised his hand to interject and insisted his country as a sovereign state has the right to "defend our national interests."
Diplomats said the other ASEAN country opposing the agreement was Vietnam.
Japan also weighed into the controversy during the meeting, with its Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda warning the row could damage "peace and stability" in Asia. Mr Noda chided Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen for limiting discussions on the mineral-rich area which also has strategic sea lanes.
"Prime minister Noda raised the issue of the South China Sea, noting that this is of common concern for the international community, which would have direct impact on peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific," a Japanese government statement said.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea while parts are also claimed by the Philippines. Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam and Taiwan.
Mr Obama, making the first visit to Cambodia by a sitting US president, is expected to express concerns over the disputes during the summit being held in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
The US supports a regional code of conduct to manage claims in the sea. Asked about the South China Sea disputes after arriving in Phnom Penh, Ms Gillard said ASEAN and China had "done some good working involving the South China Sea" but nothing should be off the table for the summit which was set-up as a forum for leaders to raise security, economic and trade issues.
Summit leaders are expected to announce, in a communique on Tuesday, that talks will start on a new economic pact known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
On Monday night Ms Gillard attended a gala dinner for the summit leaders and was seen to laugh and smile with the newly elected Mr Obama as they sat down with Mr Hun Sen.