ASEAN warns sea reclamation ‘may undermine peace’
Reclamation work in the disputed South China Sea, where mainland China has constructed an airstrip and other structures on coral reefs, threaten to “undermine peace, security and stability” in the region, Southeast Asian leaders warned Monday.
Beijing’s assertion of sovereignty over almost all the sea — also claimed in parts by several other Asian nations — has set off alarm bells with its neighbors and beyond as the mainland stakes its claim with growing boldness.
A statement to be issued at the close of the one-day summit in Malaysia notes “serious concerns” over land reclamation on reefs whose sovereignty is contested. The work has triggered fears of tightening mainland Chinese control over the seaway.
Along with the Republic of China (Taiwan), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) memberstates Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei claim parts of the sea, which is rich in energy reserves and fishery resources, and is a vital conduit for much of world trade.
Satellite photos released earlier this month provided fresh evidence of the scale of the mainland Chinese program, depicting a flotilla of ves- sels dredging sand onto a feature known as Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands.
Other photos showed a runway and ship harbor taking shape on Fiery Cross, also in the Spratlys, which was little more than a reef when work began late last year.
PRC Projects its Power
Similar work is taking place at a handful of other sites, according to defence analysts, who say the construction drive will give mainland China a permanent forward presence far out at sea from which to project its growing power.
The closing statement by Malaysia — which holds the rotating chair of 10-member ASEAN this year — instructs the region’s foreign ministers to “urgently address this matter” under dialogue mechanisms set up between the bloc and mainland China.
But it stopped just short of a call by the Philippine foreign secretary, who on Sunday challenged ASEAN to “finally stand up” to Beijing by demanding an immediate halt to the reclamation.
Albert del Rosario had warned his regional peers in Kuala Lumpur that the mainland was “poised to consolidate de facto control” of the sea.
Malaysia brushed aside suggestions of a stern response that could antagonize the mainland, but its Prime Minister Najib Razak appealed to Beijing to avoid destabilizing actions.
Despite its unity rhetoric, ASEAN members have diverging agendas, and the bloc avoids pushing the mainland of China too hard on behalf of its members.
Beijing holds immense trade and diplomatic leverage over ASEAN countries, most of which have no stake in the maritime disputes.
The Philippines and Vietnam have experienced the most direct face-offs with the PRC at sea, including a number of tense confrontations in recent years.
From left to right, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, Laos’ Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, and Philippines’ President Benigno Aquino III join hands during the plenary session of the 26th ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Monday, April 27.