The Philippines says it will host a meeting next month with three fellow southeast Asian countries on how to resolve lingering territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said Wednesday the December 12 meeting in Manila will involve the deputy foreign ministers of Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
All four countries are involved in territorial disputes with China, the region's main superpower, which claims nearly the entire South China Sea. Some of the countries also have overlapping claims with each other.
China has repeatedly rejected multilateral attempts at resolving the disputes, instead preferring to deal individually with each claimant country. The issue once again divided the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which held an annual summit this week.
Under pressure from close ally China, ASEAN chair Cambodia pushed for a statement saying the 10-member bloc had reached a consensus not to “internationalize” the sea disputes. But the Philippines objected, saying no consensus had been reached.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who attended the summit, repeated Washington's insistence that it does not side with any of the claimant countries. He also called for a reduction in the tensions, saying there is no reason to risk a potential escalation.
Charles Morrison of Hawaii's East-West Institute tells VOA that although the ASEAN and East Asia summit was split on the issue, some steps were taken to reduce tensions.
“My understanding is that most of the ASEAN countries were focused on trying to damp down the tensions that had arisen over the last couple years and were happy with the U.S. position, as well, which was not to be confrontational with the Chinese, but simply to reiterate the U.S. interest (in the region). When you have an organization…not every single one of them is going to agree…it's very hard to say that something is an actual consensus position.”
Tensions over long-standing disputes in the South China Sea have risen significantly over the last several years, with Vietnam and the Philippines both accusing China of becoming increasingly aggressive in defending its claims.
Small-scale clashes, mostly between fishing vessels or patrol boats, occasionally break out between China and other claimant countries, but the disputes have not escalated to the point of an all-out war.
The 3.5 million-square-kilometer area is one of the world's most important shipping routes. It is also rich in fishing grounds and potential energy deposits.