Tensions over territorial claims in the South China Sea are dominating a meeting of foreign ministers, with China rejecting a motion by the Philippines seeking to curb its actions in disputed waters.
As the Asean Regional Forum got underway in Myanmar yesterday, the Philippines called for disputes to be resolved through arbitration within the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and for a moratorium on actions that have raised tensions in the area. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the motion premature.
“They have this triple-action plan, but they have jumped over the two steps to go directly to the third step, so they are not abiding by their own plan,” Wang said.
The meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Naypyitaw, the Myanmar capital, ends today.
Confrontations between China and the Philippines and Vietnam have flared in the past year even as China agreed at a previous meeting of the Asean to talks on a code of conduct for the South China Sea. As negotiations stalled, China continued to assert its claims with ships, an oil rig and by building structures on rocks in waters thought to be rich in oil and gas.
“Tensions in the South China Sea have worsened in the past few months and continue to deteriorate,” Philippine Foreign Minister Albert Del Rosario said in an e-mailed statement from Manila. “All of us are seeing an increased pattern of aggressive behavior and provocative actions in the South China Sea, seriously threatening the peace, security, prosperity and stability in the region.”
China won’t budge from its stance on defense and maritime rights, Wang said in a statement after meeting with counterparts from Asean. China is keen to use a “dual-track” policy to resolve the situation in the South China Sea and doesn’t approve of anybody attempting to heighten tensions there, Wang said in a separate statement.
The Asean Regional Forum includes the 10 Southeast Asian nations plus about two dozen other countries including the U.S., China, Japan, both North and South Korea, Australia and Canada.
“It’s no understatement that what happens here matters not just to this region and to the U.S. but it matters to everybody in the world,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in the Forum’s opening remarks. “That’s why we’re encouraging claimant states to consider voluntarily agreeing to refrain from taking certain actions” that would lead to escalated disputes.
China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea under a map first published in 1947, a territory which extends hundreds of miles south from Hainan Island and takes in the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by Vietnam, and the Spratly Islands, some of which are claimed by the Philippines.
Deadly anti-Chinese riots broke out in Vietnam in May after China placed an oil rig off islands claimed by the country. The Philippines has tried to haul China before an UN tribunal as Chinese ships increasingly operate off its coast.
“For the Chinese, the issue is decided and clear, they have sovereignty over most of South China Sea,” said Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “They just need to get everyone else to sign off on it.” Barring acquiescence from the rest of Asean, “there will be a standoff,” he said.