The Philippines said Southeast Asia needs to stand up to China on its reclamations in the South China Sea as the threats posed by the creation of artificial islands are real and cannot be ignored.
China is “clearly and quickly advancing” reclamations, and the situation in waters that host some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes is worsening, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said Sunday in a speech to counterparts at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Kuala Lumpur. It is poised to “consolidate de facto control” of the South China Sea, he said.
Disputes have escalated as China claims sovereignty over about four-fifths of the sea according to the so-called nine-dash line map it drew in the 1940s, and expands the reach of its military to back its territorial interests and challenge decades of U.S. naval dominance in the Pacific. The tensions risk overshadowing its trade and investment ties with Southeast Asia.
“Is it not time for Asean to say to our northern neighbor that what it is doing is wrong and that the massive reclamations must be immediately stopped?” del Rosario said. “On this most important issue, is it not time for Asean to finally stand up for what is right?”
China’s actions have caused uneasiness for neighbors such as Vietnam and the Philippines who also claim some of the waters. Little progress has been made since China agreed in July 2013 to negotiate with Asean a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.
Asean could have moved faster on the Code of Conduct, Singapore’s Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told reporters Sunday. There was no specific consensus at the meetings, he said. The Asean and China joint working group on the Code of Conduct will meet for more talks in Thailand in May, Bernama news agency reported, citing Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn.
China has repeatedly stated it has the right to carry out construction work in the South China Sea, with recent satellite photos showing images of Chinese dredgers at work at Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, a feature also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan.
“To serve its purpose, as the Philippines had warned, our northern neighbor will in all probability finish its reclamation activities before it agrees to a conclude a COC,” del Rosario said. If that happens, “any COC would have the effect of legitimizing China’s reclamation.”
Others took on a more conciliatory note. Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said being confrontational with China won’t do Asean or claimants any good.
“Asean must send the right signal and make the right move with China,” Anifah said. “We must avoid measures that are counterproductive, either to ourselves or China.”
It would be “much appreciated” if China can stop reclamation works and find a solution with Asean countries, he said, adding that Southeast Asian nations should resolve their own “overlapping claims” before holding talks with China.