- The Washington Times - Monday, July 29, 2002

CEBU, Philippines After years of wrangling, officials in Southeast Asia say they have reached consensus on a formula for easing tensions with China over disputed claims in the South China Sea.
"It's a breakthrough," Lauro Baja, undersecretary for foreign affairs in the Philippines, told reporters before senior officials gathered in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei, for an annual meeting of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.
Makarim Wibisono, the chief of an Indonesian delegation helping lay the groundwork for the meeting, said he expected the agreement to be approved by the ASEAN members.
"We have a positive and constructive way of settling the differences, and right now we are in the process of consulting with the capitals," Mr. Wibisono told reporters in Brunei. "This is an achievement on our part because we have been discussing it for more than two years."
The ASEAN groups Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
The officials from the member countries are expected to raise the issue with Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan. Mr. Tang, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other non-ASEAN dialogue partners, including Australia and the European Union, will take part in a regional forum that begins Wednesday.
While the long-simmering dispute in the South China Sea isn't at the top of the agenda, progress is being welcomed after years of bickering among Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, all of which claim parts of the strategically important and potentially oil-rich Spratly Islands.
China claims the entire region around the islands as its sovereign territory, a claim that isn't recognized under international law.
In addition, China and Vietnam have been contesting claims in the Paracels, another South China Sea chain north of the Spratlys.
China's projection of power in the South China Sea has worried its neighbors for more than a decade, and in the past, it has insisted on addressing the territorial disputes with bilateral talks. But recently it has sent signals that the compromise ASEAN position might be acceptable.
The compromise position avoids the mention of specific territories, adopting proposed language from Manila for a code of conduct "without prejudice to territorial claims and maritime regimes or jurisdictions" recognized under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. In essence, diplomats say, it's a good-faith pledge to get along.
Earlier this month, Chinese Embassy officials in Manila dismissed as a "fabrication" assertions in a leaked document from Philippine military intelligence that "China's expansionism in Southeast Asia" makes the Spratlys "the greatest potential flashpoint for conflict" in the region.
The report charged Beijing with using "negotiating tactics to keep neighboring governments hopeful while the Chinese military continues to build up its permanent fortresses in the Spratly Islands."
The Spratlys consist of about 100 islets, reefs and shoals and make up little more than 2 square miles at low tide, but they sit astride vital sea lanes that link the Pacific and Indian oceans.
Nearly half the shipping in the world, including Middle East oil bound for Korea, Japan and Taiwan, travels the route.

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