US, al­lies slow Bei­jing’s South China Sea push

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - By Jim Gomez

With the rise of a friendly leader in the Philip­pines, China has been spared a vo­cal ad­ver­sary in the dis­puted South China Sea. In the process, it has gained mo­men­tum de­spite last year’s rul­ing by an ar­bi­tra­tion tri­bunal that in­val­i­dated its ex­pan­sive claims in the dis­puted wa­ters.

The rap­proche­ment be­tween Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte and his Chi­nese coun­ter­part, Xi Jin­ping, de­fused a tense stand­off be­tween the Asian neigh­bors last year at the dis­puted Scarborough Shoal, where China al­lowed Filipinos back to fish in Oc­to­ber as years of thorny re­la­tions be­gan to brighten.

As Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump suc­ceeded Barack Obama, who had chal­lenged China’s as­sertive ad­vances in the dis­puted sea, US al­lies won­dered if Trump would press Amer­ica’s role as a re­gional coun­ter­bal­ance to the Asian pow­er­house.

An an­nual sum­mit of Asia-Pa­cific na­tions hosted by the Philip­pines over the week­end, how­ever, de­liv­ered a re­al­ity check to Bei­jing. US Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son met his Australian and Ja­panese coun­ter­parts on the side­lines of the meet­ings in Manila of the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions, or ASEAN. Af­ter their meeting, they is­sued a joint state­ment that blasted ag­gres­sive ac­tions in the con­tested off­shore ter­ri­to­ries - with­out, of course, nam­ing Bei­jing di­rectly, in line with di­plo­matic prac­tice.

Nev­er­the­less, China quickly voiced its ir­ri­ta­tion. Its top diplo­mat said that while his coun­try and the 10-na­tion ASEAN bloc “all fully rec­og­nized that the sit­u­a­tion in the South China Sea is show­ing signs of changes and things are mov­ing to­ward a pos­i­tive direction,” some coun­tries out­side the re­gion “are not see­ing the pos­i­tive changes” and are hold­ing onto a mind­set that “still stays in the past.”

Af­ter the Philip­pines, ASEAN’s leader this year, hosted the first of three ma­jor sum­mits of the bloc in April, Duterte is­sued a tra­di­tional chair­man’s state­ment that dropped men­tion of con­tentious is­sues, in­clud­ing Bei­jing’s is­land con­struc­tions in dis­puted reefs that China has lob­bied to be struck out of such high-pro­file com­mu­niques. For China, it was seen as a di­plo­matic coup.

ASEAN state­ment

Clos­eted in their an­nual gath­er­ing in Manila over the week­end, how­ever, ASEAN for­eign min­is­ters wran­gled over the tone and word­ings to de­pict the ter­ri­to­rial rifts in­volv­ing China and five other gov­ern­ments in their joint state­ment, which un­like the chair­man’s state­ment is a ne­go­ti­ated doc­u­ment.

A draft of the ASEAN min­is­te­rial state­ment seen by The Associated Press be­fore it was fi­nal­ized and made pub­lic pro­vided a glimpse of the closed-door in­tra­mu­rals, with Viet­nam in­sist­ing on stronger lan­guage against China’s in­creas­ingly as­sertive ac­tions in the busy wa­ters.

Viet­namese diplo­mats, for ex­am­ple, in­sisted on men­tion­ing con­cern over “ex­tended con­struc­tion” in the con­tested wa­ters. Cam­bo­dia, a Chi­nese ally, de­ferred a vote on the in­clu­sion of wor­ries over mil­i­ta­riza­tion.

The Philip­pines was one of the coun­tries that op­posed men­tion of land recla­ma­tion and mil­i­ta­riza­tion in the com­mu­nique, For­eign Sec­re­tary Alan Peter Cayetano ac­knowl­edged in a news con­fer­ence late Tues­day. China, he said, threat­ened to end fu­ture talks aimed at re­solv­ing con­flicts if the ar­bi­tra­tion rul­ing was men­tioned in the state­ment.

“We won’t make any progress,” Cayetano said. “China al­ready said if you talk about the ar­bi­tra­tion award there is no talks.”

The pro­tracted quib­blings de­layed the state­ment’s re­lease, two South­east Asian diplo­mats told the AP. When it was is­sued a day later, the joint min­is­te­rial state­ment - sur­pris­ingly - men­tioned land recla­ma­tion and mil­i­ta­riza­tion and, to Bei­jing’s cer­tain dis­may, car­ried a vague ref­er­ence to the ar­bi­tra­tion rul­ing: “full re­spect for di­plo­matic and le­gal process.”

Wang played down men­tion of the is­sues, in­clud­ing land recla­ma­tion, that crit­ics have used to re­fer to China’s mas­sive is­land con­struc­tions in the South China Sea.

The next bat­tle is over a pro­posed “code of con­duct,” which aims to stymie ag­gres­sive be­hav­ior in the dis­puted sea, in­clud­ing new con­struc­tion and military for­ti­fi­ca­tions. China con­cluded talks with ASEAN for a ne­go­ti­at­ing frame­work for the nonag­gres­sion code, a baby step both sides hailed as a mile­stone.—AP

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