SE Asian na­tions feud over China

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

South­east Asian na­tions feuded yes­ter­day over how to re­spond to Chi­nese ex­pan­sion­ism in the South China Sea, with Viet­nam in­sist­ing on a tough stance but Cam­bo­dia lob­by­ing hard for Bei­jing, diplo­mats said. The de­bates among for­eign min­is­ters of the 10-mem­ber As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions (ASEAN) at a se­cu­rity fo­rum in the Philip­pines were the lat­est in years of struggles to deal with com­pet­ing claims to the strate­gi­cally vi­tal sea.

The min­is­ters failed to re­lease a cus­tom­ary joint state­ment after meet­ing on Satur­day be­cause of their dif­fer­ences on the sea is­sue, and fol­low-up ne­go­ti­a­tions yes­ter­day did not end the stand-off, two diplo­mats in­volved in the talks told AFP. “There’s still no con­sen­sus,” one of the diplo­mats said, adding the dis­agree­ments over the word­ings on the sea is­sue were hold­ing up the re­lease of the com­mu­nique. “Viet­nam is adamant, and China is ef­fec­tively us­ing Cam­bo­dia to cham­pion its in­ter­ests. But the Philip­pines is try­ing very hard to bro­ker com­pro­mise lan­guage.”

Tough lan­guage

Viet­nam had in­sisted that tough lan­guage be in­serted into the state­ment ex­press­ing con­cern over “land recla­ma­tion”, a ref­er­ence to an ex­plo­sion in re­cent years of Chi­nese ar­ti­fi­cial is­land build­ing in con­tested parts of the wa­ters. Cam­bo­dia, one of China’s strong­est al­lies within ASEAN, has firmly re­sisted, ac­cord­ing to the diplo­mats in­volved in the talks in Manila, as well as an ex­cerpt of pro­posed Cam­bo­dian res­o­lu­tion ob­tained by AFP yes­ter­day.

China claims nearly all of the sea, through which $5 tril­lion in an­nual ship­ping trade passes, and its ar­ti­fi­cial islands have raised con­cerns it could even­tu­ally build mil­i­tary bases there and es­tab­lish de facto con­trol over the wa­ters. Its sweep­ing claims over­lap with those of ASEAN mem­bers Viet­nam, the Philip­pines, Malaysia and Brunei.

Ten­sions over the sea have long vexed ASEAN, which op­er­ates on a con­sen­sus ba­sis but has had to bal­ance the in­ter­ests of ri­val claimants and those more aligned to China. Crit­ics of China have ac­cused it of try­ing to di­vide ASEAN with strong-armed tac­tics and cheque­book diplo­macy, en­tic­ing smaller coun­tries in the bloc such as Cam­bo­dia and Laos to sup­port it.

Vo­cal crit­ics

The Philip­pines, un­der pre­vi­ous pres­i­dent Benigno Aquino, had been one of the most vo­cal crit­ics of China and filed a case be­fore a UN-backed tri­bunal. The tri­bunal last year ruled China’s sweep­ing claims to the sea had no legal ba­sis. But China, de­spite be­ing a sig­na­tory to the UN’s Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea, ig­nored the rul­ing.

The Philip­pines, un­der new Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte, de­cided to play down the ver­dict in favour of pur­su­ing warmer ties with Bei­jing. This in turn led to of­fers of bil­lions of dol­lars in in­vest­ments or aid from China. “It’s clear that China’s pres­sure on in­di­vid­ual ASEAN gov­ern­ments has paid off with few pre­pared even to re­it­er­ate state­ments that they have made many times be­fore,” Bill Hay­ton, a South China Sea ex­pert and as­so­ciate fel­low with the Asia Pro­gramme at Chatham House in Lon­don, told AFP. “Bei­jing’s task has been made eas­ier be­cause the Philip­pines holds the (ASEAN) chair this year.” The ASEAN for­eign min­is­ters and their Chi­nese coun­ter­part, Wang Yi, yes­ter­day adopted a frame­work for ne­go­ti­at­ing a code of con­duct to defuse ten­sions in the sea. Wang hailed this as a break­through.

MANILA: China’s For­eign Min­is­ter Wang Yi speaks dur­ing a press con­fer­ence on the side­lines of the 50th As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions (ASEAN) re­gional se­cu­rity fo­rum. —AFP

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