ASEAN ministers keen for peaceful end to crisis in South China Sea

ASEAN has collectively expressed serious concern over the disputes and tension in the South China Sea, where fresh rows between China and ASEAN members the Philippines and Vietnam have arisen.

Foreign ministers of the regional grouping gathered yesterday in Myanmar capital Nay Pyi Taw prior to the 24th summit of their leaders today.

In a statement, ASEAN ministers "urged all parties to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions which could undermine peace and stability in the area; and to resolve disputes by peaceful means without resorting to threat or use of force".

A wide range of issues were discussed in the ministerial meeting including the preparation for the transformation into the ASEAN community by the end of next year and the post-2015 vision, but the South China Sea issue is hot as the stand-off has happened just days before the summit.

China and Vietnam were at loggerheads last week when Beijing sent an oil rig and other vessels into an area near the Paracel Islands claimed as an exclusive economic zone by Vietnam. Vietnam said its ships were damaged and crew injured when Chinese vessels fired a water cannon at them.

Meanwhile, the Philippines arrested 11 Chinese fishermen on Wednesday in an area near the Half Moon shoal that is claimed by both Beijing and Manila.

ASEAN expressed its concern over the latest developments in the South China Sea but didn't antagonise China or blame anyone, Foreign Ministry permanent secretary Sihasak Phuangketkeow said.

The grouping called all concerned parties to respect the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. ASEAN reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace and stability, maritime security, freedom of navigation on and above the South China Sea, he said.

There must be a full and effective implementation by all parties, including China, tied to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in order to create an environment of mutual trust and confidence, said Sihasak, who represented Thailand in the ministerial meeting in Myanmar.

ASEAN needed to address a common stance over a situation that affects regional security and also proves that ASEAN centrality exists for regional security, he said.

ASEAN and China signed the non-binding DOC pact more than a decade ago but conflict in the sea remains.

ASEAN is now engaging with China to get a code of conduct for behaviour in the troubled waters to guarantee security, safety and freedom of navigation.

ASEAN ministers also emphasised the need to swiftly working towards an early conclusion of the code of conduct. In the ministerial meeting yesterday, foreign ministers also discussed the situation in Northeast Asia where China and Japan are in a territorial dispute in areas of the East China Sea, Sihasak said.

Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, as the chairperson, expressed concern over the political situation in Thailand and hoped it would be solved soon.

Sihasak said he replied to the chair that it was challenging time for Thailand and people in the country would solve the problem democratically and peacefully.