- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2012

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA | New differences could undercut attempts by Southeast Asian countries and China to forge a pact aimed at preventing territorial conflicts from erupting into violence, diplomats said Tuesday at the start of a regional meeting.

The disputes in the South China Sea and North Korea’s planned rocket launch this month are top security worries expected to feature prominently at a two-day summit of Southeast Asian leaders in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

Myanmar, meanwhile, was basking in praise from colleagues for its recent democratic reforms. It was a marked reversal for the country, condemned for years for massive human rights violations, from its previous black sheep image at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations‘ (ASEAN) annual gathering.

Cambodia, the 10-nation ASEAN’s steward this year, has wanted to focus on nonpolitically volatile issues like the goal of transforming Southeast Asia from a disparate cluster of fledgling democracies, socialist states and monarchies into a European Union-like bloc that could compete in a bustling region dominated by rising giants such as China and India.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen outlined the financial problems roiling the world, including skyrocketing oil prices, that he said could hurt the region if it did not unify. He did not touch on controversial security issues.

ASEAN is facing challenges that need to be addressed in order to realize its objective of ‘one community, one destiny,’ ” Hun Sen said in a speech, mentioning this year’s summit theme.

Ahead of the leaders’ summit, foreign ministers and senior diplomats discussed a proposal to turn a nonbinding 2002 political declaration into a legally binding “code of conduct” to discourage aggression and prevent armed clashes among China and five other claimants - including ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - in contested South China Sea areas, officials said.

Taiwan also makes claims to the South China Sea.

China has said it wants to take part in the drafting of the code with ASEAN. But Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said the bloc’s members should complete a version among themselves before discussing it with China.

“It is important we maintain ASEAN centrality,” Mr. Aquino told the other leaders. After ASEAN drafts a code, “then ASEAN member states will meet with China.”

China has rejected arrangements that would force it to negotiate with a bloc of nations over the disputes, preferring one-to-one talks with each claimant.

Chinese officials, who were not present at the Phnom Penh meetings, have relayed a proposal for the setting up of a 10-member group of experts and prominent statesmen that can help think of solutions. But Vietnam and the Philippines outrightly rejected the idea, according to two Southeast Asian diplomats involved in the discussions.

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