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.

(Map omitted)

Suggested Topics
News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

Voices
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice
voices

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

News
John Moore inspired this Coca Cola Christmas advert
people

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Real Staffing - Leeds - £18k+

£18000 - £27000 per annum + Commission: SThree: The SThree group is a world le...

SEN Learning Support Assistant

£50 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an SEN Learning Supp...

Year 3 Teacher

£21000 - £31000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: KS2 Teachers - Chelm...

KS1 Teacher

£21500 - £31500 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to work...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes