THE United States, Japan and Australia have shown a united front on China’s disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea, in a strong show of support for Southeast Asian nations that have territorial disputes with Beijing in the resource-rich area.
A joint statement by the three allies, issued late Monday, provided an important boost for the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia’s territorial claims in the area after the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc failed to criticize China because of internal disunity.
“The [ASEAN foreign] ministers expressed their serious concerns over maritime disputes in the South China Sea. The ministers voiced their strong opposition to any coercive unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions,” said Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Ministers Fumio Kishida and Julie Bishop in a statement.
Earlier, Kerry met with the foreign ministers from the 10 ASEAN nations at the regional security conference in Laos, and made no direct mention of the South China Sea tensions. Instead, he praised ASEAN for speaking up for “a rules-based international system that protects the rights of all nations.”
Earlier Monday, the bloc, however, omitted from a joint statement any mention of a recent international arbitration panel ruling in a dispute between the Philippines and China that said Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea were illegal.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi later described his meeting with the ASEAN ministers as “positive”, adding that “only one country mentioned the arbitration case. That’s why ASEAN said it has no comment on the arbitration case.”
The watered-down ASEAN statement is seen as a major diplomatic victory for Beijing. China has a strong ally within ASEAN in Cambodia, which was seen as critical in keeping discussion of the issue to a minimum in Laos.
Just days after the tribunal ruling on July 12, China pledged to provide the Cambodian government with nearly US$600 million in aid to develop the country’s election, education and health infrastructures. Beijing has since insisted that it does not expect any diplomatic support from Phnom Penh in return for the aid package.
Additional reporting from Associated Press