The deputy foreign ministers and other senior foreign ministry officials of several Southeast Asian countries met in the Philippines on Wednesday to try and solve several maritime disputes which have ignited tensions and threaten regional stability.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will host a three-day maritime forum that will focus on maritime security, piracy, and free navigation of shared maritime areas.
Members of ASEAN include the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore, Laos, Myanmar and Brunei.
Also in attendance will be ASEAN partners, such as China, Japan, Australia, India, South Korea, Russia and the United States.
Spokesman Raul Hernandez explained that “The Philippines would like to positively engage our partners to discuss cross-cutting maritime issues and explore ways and means to enhance activities aimed at bolstering maritime security and cooperation in East Asia.”
The group hopes to develop concrete cooperative efforts that are able to be unveiled at the end of the conference.
With the inclusion of large regional players such as China and Japan, tensions between nations outside of the immediate ASEAN membership are expected to rise to the forefront of the conference.
As usual, speculation on oil reserves has ignited sovereignty claims over otherwise insignificant waters and islands. China has claimed sovereignty over several of its bordering seas, claiming islands in the East China Sea and the South China sea. The country is currently in dispute with Japan, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. These ASEAN nations also claim parts of the South China Sea, which aside from oil reserves contains areas ripe for fishing and important shipping lanes.
The Philippines in particular has been butting heads with the Chinese over a potentially resource filled outcropping of shoal that lies close to the Philippine coast. According the the UN laws governing the sea, this shoal deposit is well within the territory able to be claimed by the Philippines, and far away from Chinese land.
While territorial disputes may take center stage, the issue of join cooperation to strengthen maritime security and reduce piracy and other illegal activities remains the most tangible issue that the countries can make headway on. Without join security agreements and operational structure, pirates will remain at large and may even increase their hold on certain waters in the Southeast Asian region.