Thailand calls for ASEAN ministers' meeting in August

Thailand proposed Thursday that Southeast Asian ministers meet sometime in August to firm up its position on the protracted South China Sea disputes before meeting with China in Beijing in September, ASEAN diplomats said.

Sihasak Phuangketkeow, Thailand's permanent secretary of the Foreign Ministry, told Kyodo News he circulated the proposal during the ASEAN senior officials meeting in the Brunei capital.

He added some were still discussing when the meeting will take place, but according to another ASEAN diplomat the ministers will hold a "special retreat" on Aug. 13 and 14 in Hua Hin in Thailand.

Thailand is the coordinator for ASEAN-China relations.

He also said the ASEAN-China working group on Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is scheduled to meet May 29 in Bangkok.

Foreign ministers from Association of Southeast Asian Nations member countries are expected to meet with their Chinese counterpart in Beijing in the last part of August or in September to discuss the sea disputes, including how to move forward a proposed regional code of conduct aimed at reducing territorial and maritime conflicts in the South China Sea.

Expectations are high China will announce at the meeting with the ASEAN ministers whether or not it is ready to negotiate.

Talks to begin formal talks on a binding code stalled last year after China balked, saying it can only negotiate with ASEAN when "the conditions are ripe."

China did not elaborate, but a Southeast Asian diplomat said China wants an eminent persons group to draft the key elements of the proposed multilateral code.

Some ASEAN countries such as the Philippines opposed Beijing's proposal, saying it will only muddle the issue.

"It's a waste of time," said another ASEAN diplomat.

The 10-member association has finished identifying the key elements it plans to use in negotiating with China in crafting a "more binding protocol" such as the code of conduct.

The proposed code is hoped to govern the behavior of claimants in the Spratly Islands, a widely scattered group of islets, cays, reefs, rocky outcrops, shoals and banks in the South China Sea.

ASEAN wants to start the negotiations "at an earliest opportunity."

"We are prepared to sit down with them. Everybody wants the negotiations to start at the soonest possible time," said the diplomat, who requested anonymity. "It's up to China now to come up with its own elements, but (ASEAN) is ready."

Claimant countries such as the Philippines, the most vocal claimant, are pinning the hope that Brunei, this year's ASEAN chair, and country coordinator, Thailand, will be able to persuade China to agree to the early convening of a meeting to discuss the code.

The South China Sea issue has divided ASEAN, a grouping of rich and poor countries that are prone to influence by China, a major claimant.

The Spratlys are claimed in whole by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, and in part by Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Of the six claimants, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam are ASEAN members. ASEAN also includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.