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Efforts for united statement on South China Sea fail at ASEAN meeting; stricken Chinese warship returns from Half Moon Shoal

(19 July 2012)

At 5am on 15 July 2012, a Chinese naval warship that had run aground was successfully removed, allowing it to return to China. It was removed from Half Moon Shoal, located within the disputed Spratly Islands chain, with only minor damage to the vessel. Several South East Asian nations have partial or complete claims to the Spratlys, along with military presence, due to the presence of rich fishing grounds and the suspected presence of large reserves of oil and gas. The same day that the ship was freed and returned to China, it was reported that a flotilla of 30 fishing boats, accompanied by a government vessel, set out from China for a different shoal within the chain of islands (known as Zhubi reef by China and also claimed by Taiwan, Philippines and Vietnam). A recent standoff between China and the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal, which began in April, had also led to heightened tensions and presence surrounding the Spratlys. A typhoon resulted in the Philippines recalling its fishing and government vessels in June however, ending the standoff, while China remained.

Discussions over territorial claims in the South China Sea were at the forefront of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia last week. The members of the 10-nation bloc intended to develop a diplomatic statement regarding China’s claims and presence in the maritime region, however this did not eventuate. While China is not a member of ASEAN, it was reported that other member nations believed China, which was present at the meeting, had placed pressure on Cambodia to block the issuing of the statement. Reports have stated that the 10 ASEAN nations are continuing to meet this week in efforts to formulate the statement regarding a number of ‘issues’ in the South China Sea. The disagreement within the bloc, suggests China’s significant influence in the region. An informal code regarding conduct in the region was adopted between ASEAN and China in 2002, but this latest effort by ASEAN would seek to formalise such a code. The U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was also present at last week’s meeting; the U.S. claims to be neutral regarding the South China Sea territorial disputes, however it has recently signed military cooperation agreements with both Vietnam and the Philippines.

Sources: ‘Freed from shoals, warship heads back to China’, Edward Wong, New York Times, July 16 2012; ‘ASEAN seeks common ground on South China Sea spat – ministers’, Prak Chan Thul, Reuters, 19 July 2012

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