Vincent Thian, Associated Press
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — President Barack Obama's attendance at an annual summit of Southeast Asian leaders on Tuesday thrust him right in the eye of the region's most stormy dispute: the long-raging rivalry between China and five neighbors for control of strategic and resource-rich waters in the South China Sea.
The inability to resolve these territorial conflicts has become a major impediment to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations as it tackles ambitious dreams like a plan to turn the economically vibrant region of 600 million people into an EU-like community by the end of 2015.
Neither the U.S. nor China is a member of ASEAN, but each has strong supporters in the group. Summit host Cambodia, an ally of China, has tried at this week's summit to shift the focus to economic concerns, but Beijing's territorial disputes with its ASEAN neighbors — including staunch U.S. ally the Philippines — have yet again overshadowed discussions.
The disagreement sparked a tense moment Monday when Philippine President Benigno Aquino III challenged Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who had tried to cut off a discussion of the territorial disputes.
Into this heated atmosphere came Obama, who flew to Phnom Penh for Tuesday's expanded East Asia Summit, in which the 10 ASEAN countries were joined by eight other nations, including China and the United States. Behind closed doors, the Chinese and Philippine leaders pressed their territorial claims while others called for restraint. After the summit, the exchange shifted to the chandelier-lit lobby, where diplomats of the two countries reiterated their positions.
Senior Chinese diplomat Fu Ying expressed dismay that the disputes again got the spotlight. "We do not want to bring the disputes to an occasion like this and we do not want to give over-emphasis to the territorial disputes and differences," she said.
Washington has reiterated that it takes no sides in the territorial disputes but would not allow any country to resort to force and block access to the South China Sea, a vital commercial and military gateway to Asia's heartland.
Washington has also called for the early crafting of a "code of conduct" to prevent clashes in the disputed territories, a call backed by Australia and Japan, but it remains unclear if and when China will sit down with rival claimants to draft such a legally binding nonaggression pact.
The potentially oil- and gas-rich South China Sea islands and waters are contested by China, Taiwan and four ASEAN members — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The last fighting, involving China and Vietnam, killed more than 70 Vietnamese sailors in 1988, and fears that the conflicts could spark Asia's next war have kept governments on edge.
Vietnam and the Philippines, backed by Washington, have been loudest on the issue, and want China to negotiate with the other claimants as a group. China wants one-on-one negotiations — which would give it an advantage because of its sheer size and economic clout — and has warned Washington to stay away from an issue it says should not be "internationalized," a position echoed by Cambodia at the Phnom Penh summit.
There have been several recent standoffs involving boats and other shows of force, particularly between China and the Philippines, which both claim ownership of the Spratly Islands, a spray of tiny South China Sea atolls.
Their latest diplomatic confrontation occurred a few hours before Obama touched down Monday in the Cambodian capital, when Hun Sen announced as he was closing a meeting that all ASEAN leaders had agreed not to discuss the divisive issue in talks between the 10-nation bloc and China.
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