China’s is­land-build­ing faces scru­tiny at Asia talks


Bei­jing faces pres­sure over its is­land-build­ing in the South China Sea dur­ing high-level Asian se­cu­rity meet­ings this week that will in­clude the top U.S. and Chi­nese main­land diplo­mats.

Main­land China is ex­pand­ing tiny reefs into is­lands and top­ping some with mil­i­tary posts to re­in­force its dis­puted claims over the strate­gic sea, fan­ning fears of a re­gional arms race and pos­si­ble con­flict.

South­east Asia’s hu­man- traf­fick­ing prob­lem and con­cerns over North Korean mis­sile launches are also ex­pected to be among the is­sues dis­cussed at the talks in Kuala Lumpur.

But a se­nior U.S. State Depart­ment of­fi­cial said the sea row will be at the “cen­ter” of the three days of for­eign min­is­ter meet­ings start­ing Tues­day, an an­nual se­cu­rity dialog hosted by the 10-mem­ber As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions (ASEAN).

“The ASEANs, like us, are con­cerned about the scale, the scope, the pace, and the im­pli­ca­tions of China’s recla­ma­tion work,” the U.S. of­fi­cial said.

U.S. Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry and his Chi­nese coun­ter­part Wang Yi will at­tend the ASEAN Re­gional Fo­rum (ARF), along with for­eign min­is­ters from South­east Asia, Ja­pan, the Koreas, and other na­tions.

ASEAN mem­bers Viet­nam, the Philip­pines, Malaysia and Brunei all have var­i­ous claims to the South China Sea, as does Tai­wan.

But Bei­jing claims nearly all of it, and its neigh­bors com­plain the land recla­ma­tion vi­o­lates a re­gional pledge to avoid provoca­tive ac­tions.

The dialog is an op­por­tu­nity for ASEAN and oth­ers “to ex­press di­rectly to the Chi­nese” their con­cerns, the U.S. of­fi­cial said.

ASEAN has grown in­creas­ingly im­pa­tient, but Bei­jing adamantly re­jects crit­i­cism, claim­ing “in­dis­putable” sovereignty over nearly all of the wa­ter­way, be­lieved to hold im­por­tant oil and gas re­serves.

Washington has warned the ten­sions could im­pede free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion in what is a ma­jor route for in­ter­na­tional trade.

Malaysian For­eign Min­is­ter Ani­fah Aman told re­porters Fri­day there had re­cently been “im­por­tant progress” in talks be­tween ASEAN and China to­ward a “Code of Con­duct” ( COC) at sea, a set of rules meant to avoid con­flict.

How­ever, Aman’s state­ment seem­ingly con­tra­dicts re­cent com­ments made by the Philip­pines sec­re­tary of for­eign af­fairs, who told a court in the Hague last month that Bei­jing had spent years pre­vent­ing a po­ten­tial COC deal from be­ing ironed out.

“China’s in­tran­si­gence in the 13 years of sub­se­quent mul­ti­lat­eral ne­go­ti­a­tions has made that goal nearly unattain­able,” Al­bert Del Rosario told the Per­ma­nent Court of Ar­bi­tra­tion.

An­a­lysts con­cur, say­ing Bei­jing has long worked to frus­trate progress while build­ing up its pres­ence.

“China’s lead­ers will not sign, or if they sign they will not abide by, an en­force­able COC whose im­ple­men­ta­tion would se­ri­ously con­strain their free­dom to do as they please,” Don­ald Em­mer­son, a South­east Asia ex­pert at Stan­ford Univer­sity, wrote re­cently.

The “time has come to aban­don ASEAN’s en­trenched mi­rage” of a mean­ing­ful COC, he said.

Kerry is ex­pected to push hosts Malaysia to step up ef­forts to fight hu­man- traf­fick­ing af­ter Washington last week con­tro­ver­sially lifted the coun­try out of the low­est tier in its an­nual re­port card on the scourge.

South­east Asia was seized ear­lier this year by a refugee cri­sis af­ter a Thai crack­down on peo­ple-smug­gling left thou­sands of mi­grants from Bangladesh and Myan­mar stranded at sea.

Along with Thai­land, Malaysia was found to have bru­tal traf­fick­ing camps on its soil.

South­east Asian coun­tries blamed Myan­mar over the per­se­cu­tion of its Ro­hingya mi­nor­ity, which drives many into traf­fick­ing rings.

It was not clear whether ASEAN mem­ber Myan­mar would face sig­nif­i­cant pres­sure over the is­sue in Kuala Lumpur.

Kerry also is due to meet with his Turk­ish coun­ter­part as both sides grap­ple with the threat posed by the Is­lamic State.

There is also the pos­si­bil­ity that the top North and South Korean diplo­mats could hold a brief and rare meet­ing.

Peren­nial ten­sions be­tween the Koreas re­main high, with nu­clear- ca­pa­ble Py­ongyang be­lieved to be pre­par­ing for a long-range rocket test.


North Korean For­eign Min­is­ter Ri Su Yong, left, walks as Vice For­eign Min­is­ter Pak My­ong Guk, right, sees him off at the air­port in Py­ongyang, Mon­day, Aug. 3.

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