Southeast Asian foreign ministers said they were concerned about a rise in territorial tensions in the South China Sea, calling on all parties including China to show “self-restraint” after Chinese and Vietnamese ships collided near disputed islands.
Countries claiming parts of the resource-rich waters should “avoid actions which could undermine peace and stability in the area,” and “resolve disputes by peaceful means without resorting to threat or use of force,” ministers from the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations said yesterday in a statement issued after a meeting in Naypyidaw in Myanmar.
The meeting comes as Vietnam and the Philippines escalate complaints about China’s actions in disputed areas of the South China Sea, a region through which some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes run. Last week, Vietnam and China traded accusations over the ramming of ships around an oil rig China placed near the contested Paracel Islands, while Philippine police detained 11 Chinese fishermen near a shoal close to the contested Spratly Islands.
Asean is seeking a code of conduct for the waters, with talks making little progress since China agreed in July to start discussions, and China introducing fishing rules in January requiring foreign vessels to seek permission before entering waters off its southern coast. Foreign ministers in their statement yesterday called for a code of conduct to be agreed on soon.
Asean foreign ministers view the tensions as a matter of “grave concern,” Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told reporters in Naypyidaw. “Asean needs to be neutral, but Asean cannot stay silent,” he said. “For the benefit of the entire region, there has to be peace. There should be no mishaps. Mishaps can easily get out of hand. And tensions, mishaps, incidents, if they result in the disputes becoming larger, it’s bad for all of us.”
China and Vietnam both claim the Paracel Islands, and Asean members Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines have claims to other territory in the South China Sea.
While Asean is not taking sides in the disputes, ministers saw the need for a statement to show how seriously they view the tensions and to maintain the grouping’s credibility, Shanmugam said. “China will have one version of the events, Vietnam will have one version of the events. We don’t need to get into that.”
Tensions are escalating as Asian neighbors push back against Chinese moves to assert control over the resources of disputed maritime areas, seeking closer ties with the U.S. and looking to craft a code of conduct to avoid conflicts over seas.
Asean should increase its role in political and social issues beyond its grouping’s boundaries, Myanmar President Thein Sein said.
“In regional and global contexts, Asean must continue to play a greater role with more proactive engagements with external parties,” Thein Sein said in a speech opening the Asean leaders’ meeting today. “Asean should also be contributing more toward peace and prosperity to the global community by taking collective and united responses to global issues of common concern and interest.”
Philippine President Benigno Aquino flagged his intention to raise the South China Sea tensions when Asean leaders meet today in Myanmar.
Rule of Law
“Rule of law should be upheld and followed when resolving territorial issues” so each nation’s rights are recognized and respected,’’ Aquino said before departing for the summit. “Issues affecting many parties in the region cannot be settled through dialogue between two countries alone.”
President Xi Jinping is expanding China’s naval reach to back its claims to huge swaths of the South China Sea that is based on the “nine-dash line” map, first published in 1947. That claim extends hundreds of miles south from China’s Hainan Island to equatorial waters off the coast of Borneo.
Asean has taken a position of neutrality over a number of matters, such as the South China Sea spats, and has opted to stay out of the affairs of some members during times of internal tension. Still, Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin said ministers at the meeting yesterday expressed concern over the escalation in the territorial disputes.
“We asked all the parties to resolve the issue in a very peaceful manner,” he said at a briefing.
The South China Sea dispute isn’t between China and Asean, Xinhua News Agency cited Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying as saying yesterday.
“The Chinese side is always opposed to one or two countries’ attempts to use the South Sea issue to harm the overall friendship and cooperation between China and the Asean,” Hua said after the Asean statement was released, according to Xinhua.
China is “deeply shocked” by Vietnam’s “disruption” to its drilling in the South China Sea, during which Chinese ships were repeatedly rammed, a senior official said in Beijing May 8.
China has maintained restraint in the face of provocation by Vietnam, whose ships deliberately collided with Chinese boats 171 times since May 3, Yi Xianliang, China’s deputy director general of boundary and ocean affairs, said at a briefing. Vietnam on May 7 said Chinese boats rammed its ships, fired water cannon and used low-flying aircraft in a confrontation over China’s rig near the Paracel Islands.
“We cannot tolerate any behavior that would undermine the safety of our personnel or our rig or drilling operation,” Yi said, confirming Chinese vessels had used water cannons. “In the face of Vietnamese disruption, China had to increase its security forces at the scene.”
Statements made by the U.S. emboldened certain parties to take provocative action in the South China Sea, Yi said. President Barack Obama visited the Philippines and Japan last month in a tour aimed at reassuring Asian allies of U.S. support in the face of China’s rising military power.
The U.S. has criticized China for taking “provocative” and “unilateral” action to advance its territorial claims.
“The dangerous conduct and intimidation by the vessels is concerning,” State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in Washington May 8. Asked which side was at fault, she said “the comments we’ve given make clear we think it’s the Chinese side that is exhibiting provocative actions here.”
Yi said the drilling by China Oilfield Services Ltd. was legitimate and inside China’s sovereign territory. Vietnam has said the area where the rig is located is within its own waters. Yi wouldn’t give the number of Chinese vessels in the area. He said Chinese companies had been operating in the area for a decade and recent drilling was a “routine continuation” of that.
Ngo Ngoc Thu, vice commander of Vietnam’s Coast Guard, said on May 7 that China had sent 80 boats and that the situation was tense.
“The risk of escalation is real, given the role of oil and proximity to both countries,” said Taylor Fravel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies China’s ties with its neighbors, referring to the incident between China and Vietnam.
The confrontation off Vietnam’s coast is the most serious between the two countries since 2007 when Chinese naval patrol vessels fired on a Vietnamese fishing boat, killing one sailor. In 1988, a Chinese naval attack in the Spratlys, which Vietnam also lays claims to, killed 64 Vietnamese border guards as China seized seven atolls.
The 11 Chinese fishermen detained by the Philippines were caught in Philippine territory, police Director General Alan Purisima told reporters in Manila.
Philippine police didn’t fire at the Chinese vessel, which was caught with about 400 sea turtles 106 kilometers (66 miles) west of Rizal town in Palawan province, said Chief Superintendent Noel Vargas, of the police maritime group. China has demanded the release of the crew.