FOREIGN ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries issued an strongly worded communique on Tuesday referencing rising tensions in the South China Sea, but retracted it just hours later.
The comments came as China tries to discredit a pending Hague tribunal ruling, brought against it by the Philippines, on its territorial claims in the South China Sea, where most recently it reclaimed over 3,200 acres of land in the Spratly Islands.
In a statement released by the Malaysian foreign ministry to AFP, ASEAN said: “We expressed our serious concerns over the recent and ongoing developments, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and which may have the potential to undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.
“We emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation, which may raise tensions in the South China Sea.
“We stressed the importance of maintaining peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”
Under the Law of the Sea, countries are granted a 12 nautical mile territorial sea and exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles from their coastlines. They also govern territorial sea rights to certain features such as “rocks” and “low tide elevations”.
The statement was issued after a meeting between the 10 ASEAN foreign ministers and China’s foreign minister that was characterized as a “candid exchange” in the Chinese city of Kunming.
The Chinese foreign ministry appears to be in denial that any such statement was released, as spokesman Lu Kang said: “We have checked with the ASEAN side, and the so-called statement reported by AFP is not an official ASEAN document.”
According to The Wall Street Journal, a senior ASEAN diplomat later said the bloc will not issue an amended joint statement, but member states will release individual statements if they wish.
The Hague is expected to issue a ruling within the next few weeks on the arbitration case filed by the Philippines against China’s sweeping territorial claims in 2013. It is expected to rule on a number of features claimed by both countries in the area, and may also determine whether there is a legal basis to China’s ‘Nine-Dash Line’.
The ‘Nine-Dash Line’ refers to the demarcation line used by China to claim over 85 percent of the South China Sea, which includes the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, the Pratas Islands, the Macclesfield Bank, and the Scarborough Shoal.
If Beijing rejects the outcome of The Hague tribunal, it will not only harm the UNCLOS system, but also its own interests by stressing its lawless reputation, reports Foreign Policy.