Thursday, 29 August 2013

ASEAN defence ministers cautious on South China Sea

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 30th Aug 13

At a meeting of regional states at Brunei on Thursday, India’s Minister of State for Defence, Jitendra Singh, reminded China that it could not unilaterally write the rules in the region.

Addressing the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) today, many of whose members fear the rising power and assertiveness of China, Mr Singh said that territorial claims in the South China Sea could not block “unimpeded right of passage”, which were “accepted principles of international law.”

“These principles should be respected by all…. We oppose the use or the threat of use of force. We hope that all parties to disputes in the South China Sea region will abide by the 2002 Declaration on Conduct in the South China Sea,” said Mr Singh.

Indian public sector oil major, ONGC Videsh, is partnering Vietnam Oil and Gas Group in prospecting for oil in the Phu Khanh Basin in the South China Sea. So far no oil has been found; and Beijing has asserted that these are disputed waters.

Earlier this month, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, warned against hurrying through the envisaged “Code of Conduct.” China prefers to negotiate bilaterally with regional countries rather than having them ranged against it in a block.

But there is little unified will for confronting China. On Wednesday, Malaysia, which, along with Brunei --- and in contrast to Vietnam and the Philippines --- has traditionally downplayed tensions with China, declared that Chinese naval patrols are not threatening.

Bloomberg News quotes Malaysia’s defence minister, Hishammuddin, as saying that “Just because you have enemies, doesn’t mean your enemies are my enemies.” The Chinese “can patrol every day, but if their intention is not to go to war” it is of little concern.

The Asean Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) brings together the defence ministers of India, Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, and the United States with those of the 10 Asean countries.

The grouping has identified five non-controversial areas for cooperation --- counterterrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, maritime security, military medicine, and peacekeeping. The Brunei meeting added on a sixth area --- humanitarian mine action.

The meeting on Thursday was the second ADMM-Plus gathering, after its 2010 inaugural at Hanoi, Vietnam. Today’s meeting resolved to meet every two years.

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