Asean may go soft on China on sea row
Southeast Asian leaders will express serious concern over territorial disputes in the South China Sea when they gather in an annual summit in Manila on Saturday, but a draft of a communiqué to be issued at the end of the meeting indicates they will adopt subdued language on a conflict that has increasingly alarmed Asian and Western governments.
The Philippines’ President Duterte, who has warmed once-frosty relations with China, plays host to his counterparts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on Saturday.
The summits have spotlighted the escalating conflicts involving four Asean member states, Taiwan and China in recent years.
Sen. Franklin Drilon, minority leader of the Philippine Senate, said on Wednesday Manila should take the opportunity as chair of this year’s summit to reassert its sovereignty over the country’s territory in the South China Sea.
He said the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled last year in favor of the Philippines and invalidated China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea.
“We have a decision in our favor. We must continue to avail [ourselves] of every opportunity to assert that ruling by the arbitral court,” Drilon said.
But a draft of the “chairman’s statement” to be issued at the end of the summit seen by The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence-France-Presse neither mentions China directly nor refers to the arbitration decision and expresses serious concerns only “by some leaders” over the “escalation of activities in the area.”
“We shared the serious concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments and escalation of activities in the area which may further raise tensions and erode trust and confidence in the region,” the draft statement says.
The 20-page draft devotes fewer paragraphs and repeats language of concern already used in past Asean communiqués.
The statement issued by Laos last year, when it led the 10-nation regional bloc, had a longer discussion of the territorial rifts and expressed concerns over “land reclamations,” a reference to China’s newly built islands in the disputed waters, although it did not mention the Asian superpower by name.
Laos is an ally of China.
Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario of the Philippines found the draft “deeply disappointing” and said it should be revisited to reflect a better leadership impression.
“On [the] statement’s treatment of [South China Sea] developments, our succinct view is that there is a minimum expectation of positive leadership to be attributed to the Philippine chairmanship of Asean,” Del Rosario said in a statement on Wednesday.
“The draft of the chairman’s statement is deeply disappointing and, if not revisited, would manifest an absence of the desired leadership,” he said.
A diplomat from the Asean secretariat, however, said officials were still working on the draft of the statement and “it may still change” before it is issued at the end of the summit.
But Marciano Paynor Jr., director general of the summit’s organizing council, said that as chair of the summit, the Philippines should be neutral in the South China Sea disputes.
Paynor said not mentioning the arbitral ruling in the chair’s statement did not mean the Philippines was turning its back on the court’s decision.
“If you are the chair, you have to take a neutral stance because the different leaders, they look up to you. But you cannot impose your own issues and decisions,” Paynor said in a television interview on Wednesday.
He also noted that the Duterte administration had taken a stance on the South China Sea dispute different from that of the Aquino administration, which had brought the challenge to China’s extensive claims in the strategic waterway.
Mr. Duterte’s approach is not to flaunt the arbitral ruling but he is also not setting it aside, Paynor said.
“If we can resolve it in a much better way without having to have to impose it, which we cannot do, and just discuss it, that would be better. Our stance seems to be like that,” he said.
China has steadfastly opposed the raising in international forums of its territorial disputes with five governments, including Asean members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
It prefers one-on-one negotiations with each of its rival claimants, in part to shut out the United States, which it has accused of meddling in an Asian issue.
Washington has remained one of the most vocal critics of China’s increasingly assertive actions in the disputed waters, including its construction of seven islands in the South China Sea’s hotly contested Spratly archipelago.
The US Navy has continued patrols it says are aimed at ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight in one of the world’s busiest commercial sea-lanes.
The draft statement also notes “progress” on a so-called framework agreement for a code of conduct on the South China Sea.
Philippine diplomats have said the “framework” code of conduct might be completed by June, with China expressing optimism about the talks.
But negotiations for an actual code have already taken 15 years, after Asean and China adopted a nonbinding agreement in 2002 to discourage hostile acts.
Meanwhile, China has built its artificial islands, which are capable of serving as military bases.
“What’s the point of having a code of conduct if China has successfully militarized the South China Sea?” said Renato de Castro, international studies professor at Manila’s De La Salle University. —REPORTS FROM LEILA B. SALAVERRIA, CHRISTINE O. AVENDAÑO AND THE WIRES
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