Asean final statement silent on China island-building
The Philippines followed up a summit of Southeast Asian leaders by releasing a final statement on Sunday that removed mention of international concerns over China’s “militarization” of newly built artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea in a major concession to Beijing.
The 25-page statement issued by President Duterte, chair of this year’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit held in Manila on Saturday, also made no direct mention of Manila’s landmark arbitration victory over Beijing last year.
The “chairman’s statement,” handed out instead of the customary joint communiqué issued by the Asean leaders after their annual summit, referred to China’s building artificial islands on disputed reefs in the South China Sea and topping them with airstrips, aircraft hangars, radar installations and surface-to-air missile batteries as “recent developments in the area.”
“We took note of concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments in the area,” the statement said. “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 peaceful resolution of disputes, without resorting to the threat or use of force.”
The big departure from the language of the earlier draft statement tended to support reports that China had lobbied Asean not to mention its activities in the South China Sea in its final statement.
The Associated Press (AP) said the changes were apparently based on a previous draft of the statement that it had seen.
It quoted a foreign diplomat based in Manila as saying that the Philippines circulated a stronger draft statement to other Asean member states, which was backed by countries like Vietnam.
Other governments made suggestions but Mr. Duterte, as Asean chair this year, could decide how to shape the language of the chairman’s statement, AP said, quoting the diplomat, whom it said spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to discuss the issue publicly.
Easing tensions with China
The watered-down statement came as Mr. Duterte sought to bury the hatchet with China after years of wrangling over its maritime assertiveness, including its four-year blockade of Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), a rich fishing ground for Filipinos off the coast of Zambales province.
Beijing has quietly eased that, in response to Mr. Duterte’s request to allow Filipinos to fish at the shoal again.
Mr. Duterte sought to tone down the meeting on Thursday when he told reporters it would be pointless discussing China’s maritime activities, because no one dared to pressure Beijing anyway.
He said he would not take up the arbitration ruling in the Asean summit because it was an issue between China and the Philippines and did not concern other members of the 10-nation bloc.
An Asean diplomat on Sunday said the statement was a genuine representation of the atmosphere of the Manila meetings.
“We respected the Philippines’ views and cooperated with the Philippines as this year’s chair,” the diplomat said. “It clearly reflected how the issue was discussed.”
Another diplomat, who talked to the Inquirer on Sunday on condition of anonymity due to a lack of authority to speak on the matter, said the chairman’s statement was silent on China and its aggressive actions in the South China Sea because none of the Asean leaders brought up the subject during the summit on Saturday.
“Not a single leader made reference to it. There was no discussion on reclamation and militarization [during the meetings]. Almost everyone focused on the completion of the framework [of] the code of conduct [for the claimants in the South China Sea],” the diplomat said.
The diplomat, who had direct knowledge of the discussions during the leaders’ meeting, said that even Vietnam, which had opposed China’s artificial island building in the South China Sea, and Malaysia, which had raised concern over it privately, did not speak about Beijing’s moves during the meeting.
China and Asean member states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, along with Taiwan, have overlapping claims to territory in the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which $5 trillion in shipborne global trade passes every year.
The waters are also important fishing grounds and are believed to have undersea deposits of oil and natural gas.
Asean, which makes decisions by consensus, has previously struggled to come up with statements on the disputes, with Mr. Duterte’s predecessor often pushing for a tougher tone against China and getting pushback from members, like Beijing’s allies Cambodia and Laos, unwilling to upset their largest trading partner and most important economic benefactor.
The Philippines successfully challenged China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea, with the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in July last year that Beijing’s claim had no basis in international law and that it had violated Manila’s sovereign rights to fish and explore resources in the West Philippine Sea, waters in the South China Sea within the Philippines 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone.
China has dismissed the ruling, insisting it has “undisputed sovereignty” in the South China Sea and offering settlement of the disputes through bilateral negotiations.
Since taking office last year, Mr. Duterte has taken a much softer stance on China and the disputes than his predecessor.
That was reflected in the toned-down Asean statement, which AP, quoting three Philippine officials, said came at the request of Chinese diplomats in Manila.
Filipino security and maritime law experts were dismayed at the dilution of the Asean statement.
“The Philippine leadership of Asean is now overshadowed by its deference to China on the disputes,” said Prof. Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines College of Law Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
“With this, the Philippine and Asean claimants will see little or no progress in the management of the disputes, despite the opportunity provided by the award and its determination of their maritime rights outside of the sovereignty issues,” Batongbacal said.
For security analyst Francisco Ashley Acedillo, the Philippines “dropped the ball on this one.”
Acedillo said the “entire Asean” had been expecting the Philippines to take the moral ground following its victory in the arbitration court.
Instead, the Philippines, on its Asean watch, allowed China “to continue on its path of impunity,” Acedillo said. —WITH REPORTS FROM NIKKO DIZON, AP AND THE WIRES
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