PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Indonesia asked Southeast Asian countries and China on Friday to establish emergency communication lines to allow officials to rapidly contain any potential outbreak of violence in disputed South China Sea territories as a solution to the long-unresolved conflicts remained elusive.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa made the call on the eve of an annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, where the territorial conflicts were expected to dominate the discussions on a range of regional concerns that include human rights and a proposed regional free-trade pact.
The disputes have long been feared as Asia's next potential flashpoint.
Indonesia's proposal reflects growing apprehension over a lack of a clear prospect of immediately resolving the overlapping territorial claims by China, Taiwan and four countries belonging to the 10-member ASEAN – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – in the South China Sea.
While all the rival claimants have pledged to peacefully resolve their disputes, Natalegawa feared an accidental clash could get out of hand if governments did not have lines of communications devoted to rapidly contain an outbreak of violence.
Top officials and authorities should set up hotlines and commit to talk and take steps to extinguish any violence that might erupt, he said.
"It's just a simple commitment, political commitment by countries of ASEAN and China that if there were to be future incidents, let's pick up the phone and chat and discuss what has happened," Natalegawa said.
"The real challenge for us is miscalculation, misunderstanding, misperception," he told reporters after meeting his ASEAN counterparts over dinner in Phnom Penh. "When there are issues, it's the time for diplomacy to work, not to shut down."
China and the ASEAN signed a nonbinding declaration in 2002 that urged rival governments to avoid acts that touch off violent confrontations, including occupying new islands or reefs.
Both sides have agreed to work to come up with a stronger and legally-binding "code of conduct" after fresh altercations involving China, Vietnam and the Philippines ratcheted tensions anew in the disputed waters. A long-running territorial feud between China and Japan has also flared up recently, compounding regional worries.
One dilemma is China's demand to negotiate one on one with each of the other rival claimant countries, a strategy aimed at shutting out any involvement of the United States, which has been warned by Beijing to keep out of the disputes. The United States and China's rival claimants have incensed Beijing by bringing the conflicts to international forums like ASEAN and calling for the involvement of other governments in a search for a peaceful resolution.
Washington has declared that the peaceful resolution of the conflicts and freedom of navigation in the contested waters were in the U.S. national interest, suggesting it would take action to thwart any hostile act that could threaten the stability across the sea, which has one of the world's busiest commercial sea lanes.