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Disputes with China won’t stop bloc, says ASEAN exec

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations will forge ahead with efforts to integrate into a community similar to the European Union despite the South China Sea disputes, a regional official has said.

The 10-member regional bloc aspires to unify into a single economic and political force by 2015 but some of its members have competing maritime claims among themselves and with the group’s dialogue partners China, Japan and the United States.

“Yes, there is this problem, but there are also many other areas in which we cooperate. So ASEAN’s view has always been like that. They’re still able to eat together, able to do other things together like, say, projects we need to work on together,” said Danny Lee, director for community affairs development at the Jakarta-based ASEAN Secretariat.

“That’s why despite the quarrels, they say OK, we will still continue and negotiate,” Lee added.

Lee spoke to the Inquirer on the sidelines of a workshop on regional integration for ASEAN journalists here, organized by the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, German foundation Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and the EU Center in Singapore.

In Lee’s view, ASEAN, forged in 1967 by nations already dealing at the time with border disputes, treats the disputes as a small part ― and not the sum ― of regional relations.

“Our relationship is more than just the dispute,” said Lee.

He pointed out that only four of the 10 ASEAN members ― the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam ― were involved in a maritime dispute with China and Taiwan. China is claiming almost all of the South China Sea while the rest have particular claims, including the Philippines which lays ownership to islands in waters it calls the West Philippine Sea.

“Some members are closer to other countries or are seen to be closer to other countries. Cambodia and Laos are close to China. The Philippines is close to the U.S.. But having said that, at the end of the day, we’re ASEAN,” said Lee.

By Tarra Quismundo

(Philippine Daily Inquirer)