Turnaround in Asean
At last. Departing from a string of weak statements that glossed over or altogether avoided any mention of China’s aggressive activities in the South China Sea, the joint communiqué issued on Sunday by the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Manila was notable for addressing not only China’s seizure and reclamation of islands in the disputed waters but also the militarization of the area.
“We discussed extensively the matters relating to the South China Sea and took note of the concerns expressed by some Ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region,” the statement read in part.
Further: “We emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states, including those mentioned in the DOC (Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea) that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea.”
For a while, it had looked like the 10-member regional bloc would once again succumb to pressure from China — through Cambodia, its closest ally in the group — to finesse its statement and avoid language that could be seen as chiding Beijing. Although five Asean member-nations — Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines — have claims on waters and islets in the South China Sea, almost all of which China claims as its own on the basis of a nine-dash map that the Permanent Court of Arbitration has declared as without legal basis, reaching consensus on stronger language and a united front has been a contentious process.
The Philippines, which is this year’s Asean chair and which had won an important legal victory over China with the arbitral ruling, itself chose to avoid reference to China’s island reclamation or to the ruling itself in the Asean Chairman’s Statement released last April, on the back of President Duterte’s conciliatory policy toward Beijing.
This time, the bloc failed to release its joint communiqué on Saturday evening as scheduled, reportedly deadlocked on essentially the same issue.
Vietnam, which has had clashes with China over fishing and exploitation rights in its own claimed waters, was reported to have wanted tougher wording to directly address the elephant in the room, but Cambodia stood squarely against it. (In July 2012, with Cambodia as chair, the meeting of foreign ministers was marked by conflict and failed to produce a joint communiqué.)
The impasse threatened to produce another oblique statement intended to somehow placate all parties — even China, which is strictly not a party in the grouping, but whose economic and military might figures heavily in the region’s calculations.
But Vietnam’s position appeared to have prevailed. In an 11 o’clock turnaround, the foreign ministers finally hammered out a communiqué that, for a change, unmistakably called Beijing out for its island-grabbing, and the rapid transformation of these islands into military outposts.
China has built seven islands so far in the disputed waters; three of these are equipped with runways, surface-to-air missiles and radars, according to a Reuters report.
The ministerial meeting also announced the adoption of a negotiating framework that would advance a 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, an agreement that has largely been ignored, especially by China.
Now Beijing appears to have rediscovered interest in the code, pushing for talks on an outline for its implementation—though far short of what Vietnam wants, which is to make the document legally binding on all claimant-nations, including China.
Observers fear it’s a ploy for something else: to simply buy China more time to solidify its grip on this vital area. Asean might want to wise up to its giant neighbor’s long game.
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