Sihasak plays down islands row at talks

PATTAYA : Asean and China should not allow the South China Sea territorial dispute to dictate relations, Thailand will tell a meeting of senior officials today.

Thailand is currently hosting the Asean-China Senior Officials Meeting (SOM) in Pattaya.

Sihasak Phuangketkeo, permanent secretary for foreign affairs and co-chairman of the SOM, said today's meeting aims to underscore the fact there has been much cooperation between the two sides.

"The South China Sea issue should be discussed but it is not the sole issue in [Asean] relations with China," Mr Sihasak said yesterday.

He said cooperation on connectivity, maritime issues and regional economic partnerships were also on the agenda.

Mr Sihasak said he did not want to play up the South China Sea conflict as the SOM was meant to underline the region's multi-dimensional relations and set a positive tone ahead of next month's Asean-China summit in Phnom Penh.

Asean and China are expected to issue a joint statement to celebrate the 15th anniversary of their relationship at the end of the Phnom Penh summit, he said.

Asean and China agreed on a Declaration on the Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002, and talks have been underway in an effort to complete a code of conduct on maritime laws.

The South China Sea dispute has threatened Asean unity, with the bloc's ministerial meeting in Cambodia in July failing to deliver a joint statement for the first time in its 45-year history.

Cambodia is a China ally, while five other Asean nations are disputing China's territorial claims in the sea.

Thailand, which is not involved in the dispute, has called on China to return to the negotiating table, and Mr Sihasak said Beijing appears ready to do so.

He said he received a favourable response during a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying, who is responsible for Asia and the South China Sea, during a trip to Beijing last week. Thailand made the request in its role as the coordinator between Asean and China.

Five Asean countries claim South China Sea territorial rights _ the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia _ as well as China and Taiwan.

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Writer: Achara Ashayagachat & Thanida Tansubhapol