Hanoi: Territorial disputes in the South China Sea are likely to drag on for decades, and mounting demand for resources could intensify them, experts said at a conference on the region that closes on Friday.
The conference addressed one of the most sensitive political topics for Vietnam and other South-East Asian countries. Territorial disputes between China and several South-East Asian countries over the Spratly and Paracel Islands and wide areas of the ocean floor have led to diplomatic protests, seizures of fishing vessels and other conflicts.
"I think we just have to accept the fact that probably some conflicts are not meant to be solved within this lifetime," said Nazery Khalid, a senior fellow at the Maritime Institute of Malaysia.
Khalid recommended that countries in the region concentrate on areas of mutual agreement, rather than points of conflict. But participants at the conference saw few areas of agreement, apart from cooperation in meteorology and search-and-rescue efforts.
China claims virtually all of the South China Sea, and its claims overlap with those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and Brunei. Those countries` claims also overlap in various areas.
The head of Vietnam`s Diplomatic Academy, Duong Van Quang, said at the opening of the conference that tensions had risen in part due to "attempts to assert legal claims over territory, in parallel with unilateral actions to strengthen control over terrain".
Quang was referring to China`s recent establishment of a commune-level government on Woody Island, the largest of the Spratlys, which Chinese forces seized from the former South Vietnam in 1974 and which Hanoi still claims.
But international law professor Liu Nan Lai of China`s Academy for Social Sciences made no concessions to the Vietnamese view.
"There seems to be a misconception among many observers that China has taken islands from other countries in the Spratlys," Liu said. "In fact, before the 1950s and `60s, no country other than China had made a claim in the Spratlys."
Vietnam has recently suggested that ASEAN member states negotiate as a bloc to offset Chinese claims.
Mark Valencia of the US` Nautilus Institute said such cooperation was unlikely, in part because China manoeuvres to block it.
"All China needs to do is to peel off one (ASEAN) country and they won`t be able to move ahead as a bloc," Valencia said. "So this will drag on indefinitely, in my view."
The US has become peripherally involved in the dispute because its naval vessels operate in areas of the sea generally recognised as international waters, but which China considers part of its territory.
Vietnam expert Carlyle Thayer of the Australian Defence Academy said two confrontations between US naval vessels and Chinese ships that took place this spring show increasing Chinese assertiveness in the area.
Thayer said this may stem from a desire to control undersea mineral deposits or from Chinese disapproval of closer US-Vietnamese defence ties.