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In Brunei, PM emphasises on consensus over South China Sea

By Sheela Bhatt
October 10, 2013 14:35 IST
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It was clear in Brunei at the 8th East Asia Summit that China doesn’t want the South China Sea issue to even dominate the discussion, reports Sheela Bhatt, who is part of the prime minister's media contingent to the summit

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while speaking at the 8th East Asia Summit in Brunei Darussalam, emphasised on consensus among countries for issues related to the South China Sea. In his speech he said, “We welcome the collective commitment by the concerned countries to abide by and implement the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and to work towards the adoption of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea on the basis of consensus. We also welcome the establishment of the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum for developing maritime norms that would reinforce existing international law relating to maritime security.”

The statement issued after the China-ASEAN meet also said that the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) is a milestone document which embodies the collective commitment of ASEAN members and China to promote peace, stability and mutual trust, as well as peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982 UNCLOS).

China has been claiming the oil- and gas-rich South China Sea and wants to dominate it. Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam are having claims over it, too. Except Taiwan other four countries are members of ASEAN. China doesn't want ASEAN to be the platform to resolve the issue with these four countries.

It was clear in Brunei that China doesn’t want the South China Sea issue to even dominate the discussion. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said at the 16th ASEAN-China Summit in Brunei, "We must not let the question of the South China Sea affect the overall China-ASEAN relations."

"We all agree that disputes in the South China Sea should be addressed through consultation and negotiation between parties directly concerned. China and ASEAN countries should work together to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea and jointly foster a favourable and more enabling environment for peaceful settlement of the disputes. Pending a settlement, parties to the dispute should work actively for joint development," said Li.

The Western countries, particularly America, believe that China is insisting only on a “bilateral settlement” of the issues of South China Sea by talking directly to individual countries having issues with China.

At ASEAN the influence of China will continue to grow as all the ASEAN countries are intensifying relations with China. In Brunei, China-Asean summit declared that they will realise US $ 500 billion in two-way trade by 2015. The joint statement agreed today “to scale up their two-way trade to one trillion US dollars by 2020, more than doubled to that of last year.”

India knowing well about Chinese staying power to push for trade at a huge scale insisted on the maritime partnerships with East Asian nations. Indian navy power is one of the strengths in international diplomacy. While talking about the importance of maritime security amongst India and the East Asian nations Dr Singh said, “A stable maritime environment is essential to realise our collective regional aspirations. We should reaffirm the principles of maritime security, including the right of passage and unimpeded commerce, in accordance with international law, and peaceful settlement of maritime disputes.”  

The ASEAN is quite an old and seasoned grouping with set institutional mechanisms to work within themselves. A senior Indian government official had briefed the media saying, “In ASEAN already institutions are in place. I expect to see more of the same thing happening. There will be incremental progress then one big thing happening in Brunei. We (Asian nations) will keep growing.”

The PM’s speech suggests so but at Brunei, NalandaUniversity got the “international” push. Dr Singh said,  “I would like to thank the East Asia Summit participating countries for their support for the establishment of NalandaUniversity as an international institution of excellence. I am happy that the process of signing the inter-governmental Memorandum of Understanding on the NalandaUniversity has begun. Academic sessions at the university are set to begin next year. I hope students and faculty from all EAS countries will participate in this exciting venture.”

Dr Singh also spoke on co-operative mechanisms in disaster management, the process of establishing a Virtual Knowledge Centre as well as a network of round-the-clock Points of Contact among EAS countries and the need to strengthen efforts to counter threats of piracy, international terrorism, transnational crimes and drug trafficking.

One of the ongoing common endeavours of India and ASEAN nations is the issue of connectivity. India wants to build roads passing through Myanmar and wants to reach out to many more Eastern countries. It will make wonders for India’s North-East and Eastern states. Dr Singh while speaking about the ASEAN Connectivity, said the issue requires a sense of greater urgency.

He said, “Building of physical infrastructure needs to go hand-in-hand with the creation of soft infrastructure along the connectivity corridors. India welcomes dialogue and cooperation with like-minded countries on innovative means of financing these infrastructure requirements.” He welcomed the Brunei Darussalam’s initiative to hold a meeting between the ASEAN Connectivity Coordinating Committee and the East Asia Summit later this year.

For India, this initiative is very important because it will open the road way from Manipur to Myanmar to Thailand and if the India-ASEAN forum works well the road can stretch up to Singapore. This road can become one of the triggers for true Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which was launched in Phnom Penh last year.

Dr Singh said the RCEP has given India “a roadmap for regional economic integration that can reinforce growth and accelerate development across the region, besides enhancing mutual stakes in regional stability and security. India remains fully engaged in and committed to the RCEP process.”

India has welcomed the adoption of the Declaration of the 8th East Asia Summit on Food Security and has also supported Australia and Vietnam as co-Chairs of the launch of the Asia-Pacific Leaders’ Malaria Alliance. India will co-chair with Australia the Task Force on Access to Quality Medicines to combat malaria. Dr Singh said that India has proposed a new initiative for cooperation among East Asia Summit members in trauma care and nursing.

Amid all the talk of Nalanda university, nursing and trauma care and co-operation in food security, Reuters has reported that the US and Vietnam have signed the nuclear trade agreement. The agency reported that Us Secretary of State John Kerry said the US-Vietnam Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement would allow US firms to tap Vietnam's future nuclear power market, its biggest nuclear market in East Asia after China. China will certainly not like this one deal that is inked in Brunei.

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Sheela Bhatt in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
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