10 ASEAN hand-in-hand lead by -Philippines – to counter China Bullying

Philippine President Benigno Aquino is calling on the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations - ASEAN - to forge a code of conduct on territorial claims in the South China Sea, before negotiating with China to ease festering regional tensions.

Aquino, speaking Tuesday (April 3, 2012) in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, told other ASEAN heads of state that the grouping must "maintain centrality" in its dealings with Beijing. ASEAN countries and non-member China hold conflicting claims to potential mineral and energy deposits in the vast West Philippines Sea, and several recent naval confrontations have raised regional tensions.

China has sought to negotiate with individual ASEAN countries, and it was not clear from Tuesday's summit proceedings how or if the two positions will be reconciled.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose country holds the rotating ASEAN chair, opened the two-day summit Tuesday with a call for member-countries to work to narrow the gap between the region's richest and poorest countries.

"Within the region, although the development gap among ASEAN members has been noticeably narrow, it is still huge," he said. "This requires to double our efforts to promote further growth and improve equitable distribution of the fruits of growth at both the national and the regional among members countries."

Cambodia maintains close ties with Beijing, and analysts predicted ahead of the summit that Phnom Penh, as a key benefactor of Chinese investment, would seek to minimize the maritime disputes as summit host.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all claim parts of the potentially resource-rich Spratly Islands, putting them at odds with Beijing, which claims the entire 3.5 million-square-kilometer area. The Philippines and Vietnam have both accused Chinese vessels of intruding into their exclusive economic zones and disrupting oil exploration activities. Both Manila and Hanoi have acquired new navy ships as they vow to defend their claims, while China has acquired its first aircraft carrier.

Separately Tuesday, several ASEAN members raised concerns about North Korea's planned missile launch later this month. Pyongyang says the rocket will place a weather satellite into orbit. But the United States and other nations say the launch violates United Nations' sanctions prohibiting Pyongyang from launching rockets capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

ASEAN includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

I Hate USA: Beijing

Beijing's irritation with Washington's diplomatic activism in Southeast Asia is understandable -- great powers traditionally seek authority over the sea and land near their shores. But that is secondary. For China, the more important issue is its belief that a bonanza of oil lies beneath the West Philippines Sea (South China Sea). If there are such riches, one of Beijing's premier concerns - that it have secure access to sufficient natural resources to fuel its surging economy - could at once shrink, along with China's reliance on the Persian Gulf.

As we speak, Southeast Asian leaders are meeting in Phnom Penh, wringing their hands over how to reduce tension with China (pictured above, a show of unity). As suggested, the issue on its face is territorial - China claims sovereignty over the whole of the South China Sea, across which half the world's seaborne trade travels, an estimated $5 trillion a year. But the actual flashpoint is oil and gas.

Southeast Asian nations, especially the Philippines, are seeking U.S. backing to fend off China as they pursue their own claims to the islands near their shores. The Obama Administration, eager to appear tough against accusations by its opponents of softness against China, has seemed happy to mediate, famously declaring a "pivot" of national interests to Asia.

Recently Philippines Defense Minister Voltaire Gazmin renewed the war of words by suggesting that China is singling out his country with intimidation tactics because Manila's military is comparatively weak. "We are below par. So of course if you are going to bully, you would look for the weakest," Gazmin said, quoted by the Philippine Daily Inquirer. "You do not get someone who is your equal."

Since neither the U.S. nor China is likely to back down vis-à-vis the other, conciliation will have to happen in the region itself. Retired Col. Larry Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, said China's civilian leaders appear to see that they are pushing their neighbors into a position of seeking U.S. help. "We are likely to see a moderating of behavior -- not a complete change, but a moderation," he told me. Wilkerson:

Such easing may give us an opening to work out challenges in a more enlightened spirit. If not, from the Philippines to Vietnam to Indonesia to Singapore, most if not all will be with the U.S. - the hegemony 10,000 miles in the distant, versus the hegemon that hovers over them all.

Some information for this report was provided by VOA, AP, AFP and Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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