MANILA (Agencies) – Southeast Asian foreign ministers ended an impasse yesterday over how to address disputes with China in the South China Sea, issuing a communique that called for militarisation to be avoided and noting concern about island-building.
The South China Sea has long been the most divisive issue for the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), with China’s influence looming large over its activities. Some countries are wary about the possible repercussions of defying Beijing by taking a stronger stand.
Asean failed to issue the customary statement on Saturday, over what diplomats said was disagreement about whether to make oblique references to China’s rapid expansion of its defence capabilities on artificial islands in disputed waters.
China is sensitive to even a veiled reference by Asean to its seven reclaimed reefs, three of which have runways, missile batteries, radars and, according to some experts, the capability to accommodate fighter jets.
The communique late yesterday takes a stronger position than an earlier, unpublished draft, which was a watered-down version of one issued last year in Laos.
The agreed text “emphasised the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint”.
It said that after extensive discussions, concerns were voiced by some members about land reclamation “and activities in the area which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tension and may undermine peace, security and stability”.
Asean’s deadlock over the statement highlights China’s growing influence on the grouping at a time of uncertainty over the new US administration’s security priorities and whether it will try to keep China’s maritime activities in check.
Several Asean diplomats said that among the members who pushed for a communique that retained the more contentious elements was Vietnam, which has competing claims with China over the Paracel and Spratly archipelago and has had several spats with Beijing over energy concessions.
Another diplomat, however, said there was no real disagreement on the contents of the communique and stressed that the initial draft was seen by some members as weak.
Also yesterday the foreign ministers of Asean and China adopted a negotiating framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, a move they hailed as progress but seen by critics as a tactic to buy China time to consolidate its maritime power.
The debates among Asean foreign ministers in the Philippines were the latest in years of struggles to deal with competing claims to the strategically vital sea.
The ministers failed to release a customary joint statement after meeting on Saturday because of their differences on the sea issue, and yesterday it looked as if the stand-off would not end, two diplomats involved in the talks said.
“There’s still no consensus,” one of the diplomats said earlier in the day, adding the disagreements over the wordings on the sea issue were holding up the release of the communique.
“Vietnam is adamant, and China is effectively using Cambodia to champion its interests. But the Philippines is trying very hard to broker compromise language.”
Vietnam had insisted that tough language be inserted into the statement expressing concern over “land reclamation”, a reference to an explosion in recent years of Chinese artificial island building in contested parts of the waters.
Cambodia, one of China’s strongest allies within Asean, has firmly resisted, according to the diplomats involved in the talks in Manila, as well as an excerpt of proposed Cambodian resolution obtained by AFP yesterday.
China claims nearly all of the sea, through which $5 trillion in annual shipping trade passes, and its artificial islands have raised concerns it could eventually build military bases there and establish de facto control over the waters.
Its claims overlap with those of Asean members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
Tensions over the sea have long vexed Asean, which operates on a consensus basis but has had to balance the interests of rival claimants and those more aligned to China.