Asean finally makes united stand on China bold reclamations
KUALA LUMPUR—Southeast Asian nations want China to stop land reclamation in the disputed South China Sea, a regional official said on Tuesday, but China insisted it had a right to continue the activity.
Le Luong Minh, secretary general of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said Asean foreign ministers expressed concerns in a meeting on Tuesday over massive Chinese island-building activities that had escalated tensions in the area.
The flash point issue has taken center stage at the Asean 48th Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting here.
China, which is attending a series of sideline meetings, has insisted it will not talk about the dispute during the meeting.
That position prompted a sharp rebuke from the Philippines, which along with Vietnam has been involved in the most direct territorial confrontations with China.
“As we speak, we see no letup on the unilateral and aggressive activities of our northern neighbor in the South China Sea,” Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told fellow Asean foreign ministers at an afternoon meeting.
US officials have said the amount of land reclaimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan in the disputed area over the last 45 years totals 40 hectares, a fraction of the more than 1,200 hectares reclaimed by China in the last 18 months alone.
Washington has said it will call for a halt to aggressive actions by Beijing and other claimants to allow a diplomatic solution to the rift.
Washington is not a party to the conflict but says a peaceful resolution of the problem and freedom of navigation are in the US national interest. China rejects any US involvement.
Del Rosario on Tuesday said that Manila “fully supports and will proactively promote the call of the United States on the ‘three halts—a halt in reclamation, halt in construction and a halt in aggressive actions that could further heighten tensions.”
But Del Rosario stressed that Manila would not be bound by it unless other claimants agreed to the same.
Diplomats and analysts have long maintained that China’s stance is aimed at preventing Asean from presenting a more united front.
But delegates say China will not be able to escape the issue in Kuala Lumpur.
“This is not Cambodia or Laos,” one diplomat attending the talks said, referring to a 2012 foreign ministers’ meeting in which host Cambodia—China’s ally—was accused of preventing discussion of it.
Gap in behavior
China recently pledged to start substantive negotiations on a “code of conduct” (COC) with Asean governing behavior in the resource-rich and busy waterways, but there is a gap between its pledge and the situation on the ground, Minh said.
“We are calling for the termination of such activities, which are of concern to us, and eroding trust and confidence among the parties, and complicating the very process of negotiating” the code of conduct, Minh told The Associated Press.
China, Taiwan and several Asean members—the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei—have wrangled over ownership and control of the South China Sea in a conflict that has flared on and off for decades.
Tensions rose last year when China began building artificial islands in the Spratly Islands, which the United States and Beijing’s rival claimant countries fear could impede freedom of navigation and overflights in a major transit area for the world’s oil and merchandise.
The disputes have led to deadly confrontations between Beijing and Hanoi, and Washington and governments in the region are concerned that greater military deployments increase the risk of miscalculations and accidental clashes that could spiral out of control.
Need for self-restraint
Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said Asean ministers called for more self-restraint in handing the dispute.
He told reporters Asean was exploring the “possibility of putting in place preventive measures” to ensure that disagreements among claimants would not flare into a regional conflict. He declined to give details.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, however, said the activities were in Chinese territory and there should be no double standards on the issue, in reference to land reclamation work by other claimants.
He said all parties should support China and Asean in speeding up negotiations for a code of conduct.
“It’s not a constructive move to exercise double standards on the issue,” Wang told reporters on the sidelines of the Asean meetings. “China and Asean are capable enough to work together to maintain the peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
Kerry to discuss row
Asean foreign ministers will meet their US, Chinese, Australian and several other foreign counterparts on Thursday in the Asean Regional Forum, an annual Asian security meeting.
In Washington, US state department spokesman Mark Toner said on Monday that Secretary of State John Kerry would tackle the territorial issues in Malaysia.
“This is a forum in which critical security issues need to be brought up and discussed,” Toner told reporters, adding that the United States would view as “provocative” any moves to “significantly increase the physical size or functionality of disputed features, or to militarize them.”
The United States and some Southeast Asian states have watched with growing alarm as Beijing expands tiny reefs in the South China Sea, topping some with military posts to reinforce its disputed claims over the strategic waters and fanning fears of future conflict.
No mood for talks
Del Rosario also hit out at what he described as “massive reclamation activities” and construction by Beijing in the disputed sea which had “undermined peace, security and stability.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang signaled Beijing was in no mood to talk about the South China Sea.
“China has never believed that multilateral fora are the appropriate place for discussing specific bilateral disputes,” Wang said on Monday before flying to Malaysia.
Doing so will “heighten confrontation,” he said, adding that China would not bow to pressure to stop its land reclamation.
But US and Southeast Asian officials insist the dispute must be raised.
“Asean can and should play a vital part in effecting an amicable settlement,” Aman told delegates. “Above all we must be seen to address this issue peacefully and cooperatively. We have made a positive start but we need to do more.”
Beijing claims control over nearly all of the South China Sea, a key shipping route thought to hold rich oil and gas reserves.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei—all Asean members—also have various claims, as does Taiwan, many of which overlap.
Beijing has long insisted that disputes be handled on a bilateral basis between rival claimants.–Wire reports and Niña P. Calleja
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