AT ITS ANNUAL regional forum on Sunday, Asean has released a joint communique urging against militarisation and raised concern about island building in the contested South China Sea.
Having failed to issue the customary statement on Saturday, the regional bloc issued its communique yesterday, taking a stronger stand than in an earlier unpublished draft and calling for
“non-militarisation and self-restraint.”
Diplomats said failure to release the document earlier was because of disagreement over how explicitly to reference China’s rapid expansion of defence capabilities on artificial islands in the 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.
Some Asean countries are wary about the possible repercussions of defying Beijing by taking a stronger stand.
Asean said 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.”
In a statement obtained by the AFP, Vietnam lobbied for Asean to express “serious concern” over China’s building of artificial islands in the South China Sea.
The country has competing claims with China over the Paracel and Spratly archipelago and has had several spats with Beijing over energy concessions.
“The discussions were really hard. Vietnam is on its own to have stronger language on the South China Sea. Cambodia and the Philippines are not keen to reflect that,” said one Vietnamese diplomat as quoted by Philippines newspaper the Inquirer.
While the Philippines was previously alongside Vietnam in being openly critical of China’s movements in what it calls the West Philippine Sea, under President Rodrigo Duterte the country has taken a softer diplomatic approach in order to strengthen ties with Beijing.
Asean’s deadlock over the statement highlights Beijing’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.
Another diplomat, however, said there was no real disagreement on the contents of the communique and stressed the initial draft was seen by some members as weak.
The foreign ministers of Asean and China adopted a negotiating framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea on Sunday, a move they hailed as progress but seen by critics as a tactic to buy China time to consolidate its maritime power.
Additional reporting by Reuters