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ASEAN approaches consensus on sea row: Indonesia

PHNOM PENH -- Southeast Asian nations are “on the cusp” of agreeing a statement of unity on the South China Sea dispute, Indonesia's top diplomat said Thursday after meeting his Cambodian counterpart.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has taken on the role of mediator after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) failed to reach a common position on the row at a gathering in Phnom Penh last week.

“Despite suggestions to the contrary, in actual fact ASEAN remains united,” Natalegawa told reporters in the Cambodian capital, on the third leg of a regional peacemaking tour after visiting Hanoi and Manila on Wednesday.

Natalegawa said he was working to identify “basic ASEAN positions on the South China Sea,” which would dispel the perception that the 10-member group is divided.

“We are now on the cusp of formalizing this consensus,” Natalegawa said.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, whose country holds the rotating ASEAN chairmanship, told reporters he hoped to announce the bloc's joint position on Friday, pending “approval from all ASEAN foreign ministers.”

China claims sovereignty over nearly all of the resource-rich sea, which is home to vital shipping lanes, but ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims in the area.

Divisions over members' territorial disputes with Beijing prevented ASEAN from issuing its customary joint statement at the conclusion of its meeting last Friday, an unprecedented occurrence in the bloc's 45-year history.

Diplomats said a key sticking point was a refusal by host Cambodia, a close China ally, to mention specific incidents in the sea, pitting it directly against Manila, which wanted a reference to a months-long standoff with China over the Scarborough Shoal.

The rift has held up progress on a proposed “code of conduct” between ASEAN and China aimed at preventing flare-ups in the contested waters.

After holding talks with his counterparts in Vietnam and the Philippines on Wednesday, Natalegawa urged ASEAN nations to push on with the pact.

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