S. China Sea ten­sions flare at Asia se­cu­rity talks


South­east Asian diplo­mats said Tues­day that main­land China’s con­tro­ver­sial is­land­build­ing drive is rais­ing re­gional ten­sions, with the Philip­pines slam­ming its “uni­lat­eral and ag­gres­sive ac­tiv­i­ties.”

The U.S. and some South­east Asian states have watched with grow­ing alarm as Bei­jing ex­pands tiny reefs in the South China Sea, top­ping some with mil­i­tary posts to re­in­force its dis­puted claims over the strate­gic wa­ters and fan­ning fears of fu­ture con­flict.

The flash­point is­sue has taken cen­ter stage at the an­nual se­cu­rity fo­rum hosted by the 10-mem­ber As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions (ASEAN) that be­gan Tues­day.

But main­land China has in­sisted it will not dis­cuss the dis­pute dur­ing the meet­ings.

That prompted a sharp re­buke from the Philip­pines, which along with Viet­nam has been in­volved in the most di­rect ter­ri­to­rial con­fronta­tions with main­land China.

“As we speak, we see no let-up on the uni­lat­eral and ag­gres­sive ac­tiv­i­ties of our north­ern neigh­bor in the South China Sea,” Philip­pine For­eign Sec­re­tary Al­bert del Rosario told fel­low ASEAN for­eign min­is­ters at an af­ter­noon meet­ing, ac­cord­ing to a tran­script of his re­marks ob­tained by AFP.

He also hit out at what he de­scribed as “mas­sive recla­ma­tion ac­tiv­i­ties” and con­struc­tion by Bei­jing in the dis­puted sea which had “un­der­mined peace, se­cu­rity and sta­bil­ity.”

Main­land Chi­nese for­eign rep­re­sen­ta­tive Wang Yi said on Mon­day that such gath­er­ings are not “the ap­pro­pri­ate place for dis­cussing spe­cific bi­lat­eral dis­putes,” and that do­ing so would “heighten con­fronta­tion.”

He re­it­er­ated main­land China’s po­si­tion that it would not bow to pres­sure on its land recla­ma­tion.

But de­spite Bei­jing’s protes­ta­tions, Malaysia’s for­eign min­is­ter said the South China Sea dis­putes were “dis­cussed ex­ten­sively” dur­ing the day’s meet­ings.

“We also dis­cussed ways to ad­dress ero­sion of trust and con­fi­dence amongst par­ties fol­low- ing re­cent de­vel­op­ments in the South China Sea, in­clud­ing land recla­ma­tion, as well as es­ca­la­tion of ten­sion on the ground,” Ani­fah Aman told re­porters.

Com­pet­ing Claims

Bei­jing claims con­trol over nearly all of the South China Sea, a key ship­ping route thought to hold rich oil and gas re­serves.

Viet­nam, the Philip­pines, Malaysia and Brunei — all ASEAN mem­bers — also have var­i­ous claims, as does Tai­wan, many of which over­lap.

Bei­jing in­sists dis­putes must be han­dled on a bi­lat­eral ba­sis be­tween ri­val claimants. Diplo­mats and an­a­lysts say this stance is aimed at pre­vent­ing ASEAN from pre­sent­ing a more united front.

But del­e­gates say the main­land will not be able to es­cape the is­sue in Kuala Lumpur this week.

“This is not Cam­bo­dia or Laos,” one diplo­mat at­tend­ing the talks told AFP, re­fer­ring to a 2012 for­eign min­is­ters’ meet­ing in which host Cam­bo­dia — a main­land ally — was ac­cused of pre­vent­ing dis­cus­sion of it.

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