Indonesia scrambles to end ASEAN rift over sea

Indonesia's top diplomat started an emergency trip to Southeast Asian nations Wednesday to ease differences among them over the handling of territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said he met his Philippine counterpart, Albert del Rosario, in Manila on Wednesday and would fly to other Southeast Asian nations to try to ease the discord and prevent further damage to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Foreign ministers of the 10-nation bloc failed to issue a concluding joint statement after their annual meeting in Phnom Penh last week when host Cambodia rejected a proposal by the Philippines and Vietnam to mention their separate territorial disputes with China in the statement.

The absence of a post-conference statement was unprecedented in ASEAN's 45-year history and underscored the divisions within the group over the handling of the South China Sea disputes, which involve four of its members — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The four, along with China and Taiwan, have long contested ownership of potentially oil- and gas-rich territories and recent spats have raised alarm.

Cambodia, a close China ally, has followed Beijing's stance that the disputes should not be brought to a multinational forum like ASEAN but instead should be negotiated by rival claimants one on one.

The Philippines and Vietnam, in contrast, have sought international attention and warned that Chinese aggression in the South China Sea could block freedom of navigation in the strategic and busy waters, which Beijing claims virtually in their entirety.

Washington has said peace and freedom of navigation are in the U.S. national interest. China, however, has warned the U.S. not to interfere.

Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam has said the failure of Cambodia to forge a consensus led to the scrapping of the crucial statement, causing "a severe dent on ASEAN's credibility." Without a group statement on issues like poverty, human rights and regional integration, it is not clear what ASEAN heads of state will discuss at their summit in Cambodia in November, he said.

Philippine Foreign Undersecretary Erlinda Basilio said that while her country was patient and tolerant, it "could not perpetually remain mute over the brazen acts of infringement on its territory and intimidation by a powerful country," referring to China. Chinese and Philippine ships faced off at a disputed South China Sea shoal in April. The Philippines has withdrawn its vessels but Chinese ships have remained at Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines.

Basilio said China has blocked entry to a sprawling lagoon at Scarborough, a rich fishing ground. The barriers consisted of a rope and nets held up by buoys, along with a row of Chinese dinghies tied together with rope.

The Chinese Embassy did not reply to an Associated Press request for a comment.

Natalegawa told a news conference it was "critically important" for ASEAN to deal with the internal disagreements. "If we do not do anything, we know the damage will become bigger," he said.

He said he would try to rally Southeast Asian governments to agree on six principles on the South China Sea issue, including avoiding use of force, resolving the conflicts in accordance with international laws, and an early signing of a legally binding "code of conduct" aimed at thwarting any major armed conflict.

Indonesia was one of the founders of ASEAN in 1967. The bloc also includes Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.