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China reclamation, militarization not cited in Asean statement

/ 09:54 AM April 30, 2017
South China Sea

This image with notations provided by ImageSat International N.V., Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016, shows satellite images of Woody Island, the largest of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. AP FILE PHOTO

While taking note of the “concerns expressed by some Leaders over recent developments” in the South China Sea, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) chose not to mention China’s reclamation activities and apparent militarization in the disputed territories.

The Chairman’s Statement of the 30th Asean Summit also did not mention the United Nations arbitral ruling that negated the Nine-Dash Line claim of China to virtually all of the South China Sea.

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The chairman’s message released Sunday summed up the views of the heads of states of member countries.

READ: FULL TEXT: Chairman’s Statement on the 30th Asean Summit

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The Philippines is host to this year’s summit with President Rodrigo Duterte as chair.

After winning a tribunal ruling invalidating China’s historical claim over the waters, Duterte has cozied Philippine relations with China gaining a bonanza of loans and investments.

The previous administration of former president Benigno Aquino III took a more rigid stance against China’s artificial island building in the disputed waters.

In the statement, the Asean urged “self-restraint in the conduct of activities, and avoiding actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursuing the peaceful resolution of disputes, without resorting to the threat or use of force.”

That is in apparent reference to China’s building of artificial islands. China has also  driven away Filipino fishermen from traditional fishing grounds near the Union Banks and tried to stop Philippine airplanes from traveling to Pagasa Island.

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A draft statement reportedly included the following text: “We reaffirmed the importance of enhancing mutual trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities, avoiding actions, such as land reclamation and militarization that may further complicate the situation, and pursuing the settlement of disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”

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The final chairman’s statement in the Asean website did not mention the call to avoid militarization and land reclamation activities.

“We took note of concerns expressed by some Leaders over recent developments in the area. We reaffirmed the importance of the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities, and avoiding actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursuing the peaceful resolution of disputes, without resorting to the threat or use of force,” the final message read.

Besides the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam have overlapping claims with China.

While the leaders did not mention the Unclos in the portion about the South China Sea, they cited elsewhere the need for peaceful resolution of disputes by adhering with international law and the Unclos.

The UNCLOS is the primary international law which governs maritime disputes on overlapping maritime zones.

“We reaffirmed the shared commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability in the region, as well as to the peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),” the leaders said in the section under the Asean Community Vision 2025.

The Asean leaders called for the crafting of a Code of Conduct to govern the actions of Asean member states and China in the resource-rich waters by the middle of the year.

“We underscored the importance of the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in its entirety. We took note of the improving cooperation between Asean and China,” the Asean statement said.

“We welcomed the progress to complete a framework of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) by middle of this year, in order to facilitate the early conclusion of an effective COC. We recognized the long-term benefits that would be gained from having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability and sustainable development,” it added.

This year’s chairman message is a complete departure from the 28th and 29th chairman’s message in Laos, which expressed the Asean leaders’ concern over the land reclamation and escalation of activities in the tense region.

“We remain seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments and took note of the concerns expressed by some Leaders on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region,” the Laos chairman’s message read.

The Laos chairman’s message also mentioned the need to promote freedom of navigation and peace and security in the South China Sea based on self-restraint and mutual respect, and the need to avoid militarization and land reclamation activities in the disputed waters.

“We reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and over – flight above the South China Sea. We further reaffirmed the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),” the chairman’s message last year read.

“We emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea,” it added.

Agence France Presse (AFP) earlier reported that China, through its ambassador to Manila, had been heavily lobbying Duterte to weaken the Asean chair’s statement by dropping any reference to international law.

China has been calling for Asean to remove a reference to “respect for legal and diplomatic processes”, which diplomats told AFP could refer to the tribunal ruling that invalidated China’s historic claims over the South China Sea.

READ: China set for win at Southeast Asian summit Asean leaders wrestle over China at summit

“The lobbying is quite intense. They (China) want it further watered down,” one diplomat told AFP.

China wanted Asean to remove a reference to “respect for legal and diplomatic processes”, and it was taken out of the South China Sea section of the latest draft of the chairman’s statement, AFP reported.

Duterte earlier said he saw no point in raising the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling favoring the Philippines’ maritime claims over the West Philippine Sea and invalidating China’s nine-dash line claiming most of the disputed waters, because it was an issue between Manila and Beijing only. Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also have overlapping claims.

READ: Duterte: Arbitral ruling not an issue for Asean

In his opening message as chair, Duterte noticeably did not make any mention to the need to respect diplomatic processes – which could be a reference to China’s refusal to heed the tribunal ruling – but instead emphasized the need to follow the supremacy of law.

“Relations also remain solid if all stakeholders learn to respect and value the peaceful resolution of disputes,” Duterte said in opening the Manila summit.

“In an era where there can be much uncertainty, we must faithfully adhere to the supremacy of the law and rely on the primacy of rules as responsible members of the international community,” he added.

The Asean leaders in attendance in the Manila summit were Myanmar state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesia President Joko Widodo, and Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The Philippines was host of the 30th Asean Summit from April 26 to 29 in Manila. Duterte would chair the first of two annual meetings of Asean leaders. The next meeting is in November. CBB/rga

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TAGS: ASEAN, China, Features, nine-dash line, South China Sea
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