South China Sea tensions cooling, experts say
Nov 12, 2010, 4:23 GMT
Hanoi - Experts at a conference on South China Sea territorial disputes said Friday that tensions between China and South-East Asian countries had cooled in recent months.
But they said the underlying disputes would likely not be solved and could lead to conflicts in the future over territory and resources.
The conference, held in Ho Chi Minh City, brought together about 70 experts on maritime law and security in the South China Sea. China claims almost the entire sea as its own territory, leading to angry exchanges in recent months with South-East Asian countries and even the United States.
Carl Thayer, an expert on Vietnam and South-East Asia at the Australian Defence Academy, said both Chinese and non-Chinese scholars attending the conference had adopted a less confrontational stance than at a similar conference last year.
'The tone of the workshop shifted,' Thayer said. This year, the emphasis was on 'how international and other measures could be used to resolve tensions,' he said.
The shift mirrored the conciliatory atmosphere over South China Sea issues at last month's Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Hanoi.
The Chinese are 'treading cautiously' at the conference, said Nazery Khalid, a senior fellow at the Maritime Institute of Malaysia. 'It helps that the Chinese-bashing tone that was rather apparent during last year's workshop was not as prominent.'
Thayer said presenters at the conference had found no international legal basis for a Chinese map that claims almost the entire sea as Chinese territory.
But other presentations focused on international cooperation on sharing resources and on the prospects for a legally binding Declaration of Conduct to avoid future conflicts.
China has detained hundreds of Vietnamese fishing boats in the past year attempting to enforce its claims to territory around the disputed Spratly Islands, which Vietnam also claims. Beijing has rejected proposals for multilateral talks on the sea between China and ASEAN, preferring bilateral talks with Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and other claimants.
China criticized the US for inserting itself into the conflict after US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton supported the multilateral approach backed by Vietnam in July. The US does not recognize China's map, which it said would infringe on freedom of navigation in international waters.
A meeting between China's defence minister and the US defence secretary in October adopted a more positive tone as did a meeting between Clinton and China's foreign minister at the ASEAN summit.
'China's speech and words have become less aggressive,' said Bui Hong Phuc, former Vietnamese ambassador to China. 'But their actual activities are still the same.'
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