BANGKOK: A group of former politicians, diplomats and academics has quietly set up an organisation to help settle Asian conflicts such as overlapping claims for the potentially rich oil and gas fields in the South China Sea.
Members of the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council, which will have a secretariat in Bangkok, said they would provide "silent" diplomacy to solve conflicts and foster peace and reconciliation.
The South China Sea impasse has caused a historic split in the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations, the first time the group has failed to reach consensus in its 45-year history.
During a stop in Jakarta last week, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, called for a "show of unity" from ASEAN in seeking a settlement with China, which has declared it owns virtually all the South China Sea.
ASEAN's unity will be at stake in the lead-up to an East Asian Summit in Phnom Penh in November, diplomats said.
The new council was initiated by a former Thai foreign minister, Surakiart Sathirathai. Members include the former Malaysian prime minister Abdullah Badawi, the former Pakistani prime minister Shaukat Aziz, the former East Timor president Jose Ramos-Horta and the former Singapore minister Shunmugam Jayakumar.
Dr Surakiart said the council "may choose to engage in any conflict resolution process, provided all parties grant their consent". Conflicts it may try to help settle include clashes in Sri Lanka, Indonesia's Aceh, Thailand's Muslim-majority south and the South China Sea impasse, he told journalists in Bangkok.
He stressed the council's success would depend on "quiet diplomacy".
Deep tensions remain over the South China Sea after China's head of state, Hu Jintao, and the Philippines President, Benigno Aquino, failed to meet last weekend at the Asia-Pacific leaders meeting in the Russian port of Vladivostok.
The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims on parts of the South China Sea, which has shipping lanes vital to global growth. The Philippines and Vietnam have accused China of waging a campaign of intimidation to press its claims.
ASEAN split over the impasse in mid-July when its 2012 chairman, Cambodia, which has strong ties to China, dropped a joint statement that mentioned the claims of Vietnam and the Philippines.
Since then, Indonesia has taken the lead in trying to get ASEAN to show a united front against China's claims.
ASEAN officials are scheduled to discuss the issue again in Phnom Penh this week.