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Spat over oil islands could sink Asean's search for a new role

A CLUSTER of about 60 tiny barren islands in the South China Sea, several of which disappear at high tide, is bedevilling attempts to evolve a regional security system for east Asia.

Opening the annual conference of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) in Bangkok yesterday, the Thai Prime Minister, Chuan Leekpai, said the organisation urgently needed to use preventive diplomacy to avert armed confrontation in regional competition for resources and territory, notably in the Spratly Islands, which was 'a particularly worrisome prospect.'

The Spratlys are claimed by six nations - three of them Asean members - because the seabed around the archipelago is thought to be rich in oil. The foreign ministers of China and Vietnam, which in 1988 fought a naval battle in the islands, met on the fringes of Asean yesterday in an attempt to resolve fresh disagreements. Each country has granted oil exploration concessions to American-led consortiums in waters claimed by the other - Peking to Crestone, Hanoi to Mobil. Chinese warships are blockading a Vietnamese drilling rig claimed to be trespassing in the Crestone block.

Both countries agreed yesterday to exercise restraint, but a Chinese spokesman said this did not affect Peking's ownership of the Spratlys. Vietnam and the Philippines, which lays claim to islands on which Hanoi has built lighthouses, also decided yesterday to set up a joint task force to resolve their dispute. The other three claimants to all or part of the Spratlys are Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei, the last of which is the only country not to have troops on the islands.

The tug-of-war over the Spratlys threatens to undermine efforts to make Asean the focus of wider regional co-operation in east Asia. Formed in 1967 by Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia, with Brunei joining in 1984, the organisation was intended as an economic community. Its main function, however, turned out to be political, preserving stability while Communist Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were caught up in war and Burma sank into repressive isolation. All four are now eager to join Asean, and Vietnam is likely to be admitted soon.

The grouping's search for a new role after the Cold War led to the formation of the 18-member Asean Regional Forum (ARF), the first move within east Asia towards a body similar to the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. ARF, which brings together all the claimants to the Spratlys save Taiwan, holds its first ministerial meeting in Bangkok on Monday, but this is likely to be mainly a ceremonial occasion.

The other main source of controversy has been the invitation to Burma to send its foreign minister to the Asean gathering for the first time, easing the country's diplomatic ostracism since the military government massacred hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988. Yesterday Burma agreed to talks with the United Nations Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros Ghali, to discuss human- rights issues such as the continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's leading dissident.

A meeting is also being sought with Ohn Gyaw, the Burmese Foreign Minister, by his German counterpart, Klaus Kinkel, who is representing the European Union.

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