China scores diplo­matic coup in sea row at ASEAN meet

Af­ter im­passe, mem­bers sign di­luted state­ment on Bei­jing’s terms for talks

Muscat Daily - - WORLD -

Manila, Philip­pines - China on Sun­day scored a diplo­matic coup in its cam­paign to weaken re­gional re­sis­tance against its sweep­ing claims to the South China Sea when South­east Asian na­tions is­sued a di­luted state­ment on the dis­pute and agreed to Bei­jing’s terms on talks.

Af­ter two days of tense meet­ings on the dis­pute in the Philip­pine cap­i­tal, for­eign min­is­ters from the ten-mem­ber As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions (ASEAN) is­sued a joint com­mu­nique that diplo­mats in­volved said was care­fully worded to avoid an­ger­ing China.

The re­lease of the state­ment came shortly af­ter the min­is­ters met with Chi­nese For­eign Min­is­ter Wang Yi and agreed on a frame­work for con­duct­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions on the decades-long row that in­cluded key clauses ad­vo­cated by China.

“This is an im­por­tant out­come of our joint ef­fort,” Wang told re- porters as he cel­e­brated the agree­ment.

China claims nearly all of the strate­gi­cally vi­tal sea and is be­lieved to sit atop vast oil and gas de­posits.

Its sweep­ing claims over­lap with those of ASEAN mem­bers Viet­nam, the Philip­pines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Tai­wan.

China has dra­mat­i­cally ex­panded its pres­ence in the con­tested ar­eas in re­cent years by build­ing gi­ant ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands that could be used as mil­i­tary bases, rais­ing con­cerns it will even­tu­ally es­tab­lish de facto con­trol over the wa­ters.

In what two diplo­mats in­volved said was an­other vic­tory for Bei­jing on Sun­day, ASEAN mem­bers de­clined to say in their joint state­ment that the hope­d­for code of con­duct with China be ‘legally bind­ing’.

Viet­nam, the most de­ter­mined critic of China on the is­sue, had in­sisted dur­ing two days of ne­go­ti­a­tions that ASEAN in­sist the code be legally bind­ing, ar­gu­ing oth­er­wise it would be mean­ing­less. The ASEAN min­is­ters failed to re­lease the joint state­ment as ex­pected af­ter meet­ing on Sat­ur­day be­cause of their dif­fer­ences on the sea is­sue, with Viet­nam push­ing for tougher lan­guage and Cam­bo­dia lob­by­ing hard for China.

“Viet­nam is adamant, and China is ef­fec­tively us­ing Cam­bo­dia to cham­pion its in­ter­ests,” one diplo­mat told AFP on Sun­day as ne­go­ti­a­tions ex­tended into over­time.

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.

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.

(AFP)

Chi­nese For­eign Min­is­ter Wang Yi (right) af­ter de­liv­er­ing his open­ing state­ment dur­ing the Sign­ing of the Mem­o­ran­dum of Un­der­stand­ing on the ASEAN-China Cen­tre, at the 50th As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions re­gional se­cu­rity fo­rum, in Manila on Sun­day

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