Asean members seek India's help on South China Sea disputes

22/12/2012- Southeast Asian countries have urged India to intervene to help resolve bitter territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (in blue turban) and Asean leaders wave flags at their summit in New Delhi. Photo: Reuters

Asean called on India, which vowed to promote co-operation on trade and maritime security with the bloc, to take a more decisive stance in the region.

Individual countries in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations went further. Vietnamese Premier Nguyen Tan Dung asked for New Delhi's direct intervention over South China Sea territorial disputes, while Myanmese President Thein Sein said India's role was "crucial" to ensuring peace and stability in the region.

In a vision statement agreed at the summit, the two sides set their sights on a new "strategic partnership" that would bring closer political, security and economic co-operation.

Significantly, they underlined the need for freedom of navigation, a contentious issue because of competing claims with China over parts of the South China Sea, though there was no mention of China in their statement. The Philippines and Vietnam referred to tensions in their region, but India's foreign minister sought to distance New Delhi from the wrangling over the South China Sea.

"There are fundamental issues there that do not require India's intervention," External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid told a news conference, adding that issues of sovereignty "need to be resolved between the countries concerned".

An Asean summit ended in acrimony last month over China's assertiveness in the South China Sea, with its leaders failing to agree on a concluding joint statement.

China claims most of the South China Sea, including waters close to its neighbours' shores which include major sea lanes and are believed to hold vast mineral and oil resources.

China's claim is contested by the Philippines as well as Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, which have overlapping claims to some or all of the same areas.

"Doing something about it includes not doing something about it," Khurshid said, adding that issues of sovereignty "need to be resolved between the countries concerned".

"China knows it, India knows it - that there is too much to lose if we don't overcome issues from time to time," he said.

Last month, China announced a plan to board and search ships that illegally enter what it considers its territory in the South China Sea, prompting Asean's secretary general to warn this could spark naval clashes.

"The need to maintain a high level of maritime security and freedom of navigation offers us ... an opportunity for enhanced co-operation," Philippine Vice- President Jejomar Binay said.

Although India has no territorial claim in the region, it is hungry for energy and is exploring for oil and gas with Vietnam in an area contested by China. In future, it is expected to ship liquefied natural gas from Russia through the Malacca Strait.

This month, India's navy chief said he was ready to deploy vessels to the South China Sea to protect exploration interests.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told the summit that closer maritime co-operation with India was needed because 70 per cent of the world's traffic in petroleum products went via the Indian Ocean.

The New Delhi summit underscored India's growing role in one of the world's fastest-growing regions.

Twenty years after India launched a 'Look East' diplomatic push to promote trade with a neglected neighbouring region, the relationship is finally beginning to gain traction. Annual trade has nearly doubled in four years and India's growing economic clout makes it appealing as a balance to other Asian powers. However, China's trade relations and links with Asean are far deeper than India's.

Agence France-Presse, Reuters