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Cambodia denies ASEAN rift over sea disputes with China

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday angrily rejected reports of a rift within Southeast Asian nations over how to settle overlapping maritime disputes with China.

world Updated: Apr 04, 2012 12:37 IST

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday angrily rejected reports of a rift within Southeast Asian nations over how to settle overlapping maritime disputes with China.

He also denied reports that China had pressured Cambodia, the current chair of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to pull the issue off the agenda of the bloc's summit this week in Phnom Penh.

"Maybe some people think that during the ASEAN summit there is a difference of view between ASEAN and China. That is the wrong thinking," he said, adding that all parties were committed to peacefully resolving the disputes.

"It is a process that one cannot abandon," he said, referring to an agreement last year between ASEAN and China on guidelines for the implementation of a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

China and several ASEAN countries have rival claims to uninhabited islands in the sea, which is believed to be rich in hydrocarbons and straddles strategic shipping lanes vital to global trade.

"We stressed the need to intensify efforts to ensure the effective and full implementation of the DOC (Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea) based on the guidelines for the implementation of the DOC," the leaders said in a statement at the end of the two-day summit.

The Philippines and Vietnam have expressed concern about China's increasingly aggressive posture in the sea in recent years, while the United States says it is concerned about minor clashes escalating into wider conflicts.

Cambodia is eager to bring China into the drafting process but the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam say the bloc's members should draft a code among themselves before presenting it to Beijing.

"We have to come up with a conclusion in ASEAN first before we can talk to China," Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul told reporters Wednesday.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said there was a "big disagreement" at the summit on Tuesday over whether to invite China to help draft a code of conduct.

Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Cambodia on the eve of the summit in what many analysts took to be a form of pressure on Phnom Penh to use its chairmanship to slow down the South China Sea negotiations.

Cambodian officials deny they are under any pressure from Beijing, but Hun Sen left the maritime disputes and the proposed code of conduct -- first mooted 10 years ago -- off his list of ASEAN priorities for 2012.

China has competing territorial claims in the sea with ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The United States says it has a "national interest" in keeping the vital trade route open to shipping.

ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam -- a grouping of nearly 600 million people from disparate economic and political systems.