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Saturday, 2 November, 2002, 01:06 GMT
Deal nears on Asian islands dispute
Chinese base on the Spratlys
China has been erecting outposts on the islands
South East Asian states have reached a draft agreement aimed at avoiding conflicts over the disputed Spratly Islands.

Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji is escorted to his car in Phnom Penh
China is set to dominate this Asean summit
All 10 member-states of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) approved a code of conduct for the islands in the South China Sea which will in turn be presented to China, which is not a member.

The agreement - reached by working groups in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh - comes just before Asean holds its annual summit in the city.

The Spratlys
100 tiny formerly uninhabited islets and reefs making up 5 km of actual land spread over 410,000 sq km of sea
Believed rich in oil and gas as well as fish stocks, and straddle busy sea lanes
China and Taiwan lay claim to all of them - Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines to part of them
Correspondents say the arrival of Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji on Friday appears to mark Chinese approval.

The fate of the islands, which are believed to be rich in offshore oil and gas deposits, has for years dogged relations between four Asean states - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - and their giant neighbour China and Taiwan.

A spokesman for the Cambodian foreign ministry, Chem Widhya, announced the draft "declaration of conduct", which is not binding, after chairing marathon meetings on the issue.

"The text stipulates the countries of Asean and China restrain from any activities that would escalate or that would complicate the relations among themselves... and also to help any person in distress," he said.

The four Asean states involved in the dispute agreed to the declaration as far back as 11 October, but it was only approved by the remaining Asean states on Thursday, he said. It has still to be formally approved by Asean leaders.

Click here to see a map of the affected area

Mr Zhu will attend the two-day summit opening on Monday along with other non-Asean leaders but it is unclear when the draft agreement will be officially presented for Chinese approval.

Friction over the islands most recently erupted in August when Vietnamese troops based on one islet fired warning shots at Philippine military planes.

Chinese economic powerhouse

The BBC's Jonathon Head reports that China's economic role will also be high on the agenda for the Asean summit.

Its spectacular economic success in recent years came largely at the expense of other South East Asian countries as foreign investment which had fuelled the growth of so-called tiger economies like Malaysia's and Thailand's in the 1980s and 1990s moved to the huge Chinese market.

Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.
China has offered to alleviate this by establishing a free trade area with Asean to cover a total population of 1.7 billion people.

Some Asean governments fear that their products would stand little chance against fiercely competitive Chinese industries while others see great potential in exporting food and other natural resources to China.

The first framework agreement for the free trade area is due to signed on Monday.

The summit is also likely to focus on the effect of the Bali bomb attacks on regional economies and more promises of action to counter terrorism are expected.

There are already a number of co-operation agreements between Asean states' security forces in place, but Bali has cast doubt on just how well they are being implemented, our correspondent says.

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See also:

01 Aug 02 | Asia-Pacific
02 Aug 02 | Asia-Pacific
07 Nov 01 | Business
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