Tensions over territorial claims in the South China Sea dominated a meeting of regional foreign ministers this weekend with the U.S. backing a motion from the Philippines seeking to curb Chinese actions in disputed areas.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario submitted a proposal calling for a halt in activities that have “raised tensions” in the contested waters, a motion to be supported by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is attending the two-day Asean Regional Forum in Myanmar. China has indicated it will rebuff the move.
Though China agreed at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in July of last year to talks on rules to avoid conflict in the South China Sea, there has been little progress. As negotiations stalled, tensions flared, with China asserting its claims with ships, an oil rig and by building structures on rocks in waters rich in oil and gas and contested by the Philippines and Vietnam among others.
“For the Chinese the issue is decided and clear, they have sovereignty over most of South China Sea. They just need to get everyone else to sign off on it,” said Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Barring acquiescence from the rest of Asean, “there will be a stand off.”
The Philippines’ proposal, dubbed the “triple-action plan,” calls for the moratorium, completion of a code of conduct and for disputes to be resolved through arbitration within the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
“Tensions in the South China Sea have worsened in the past few months and continue to deteriorate,” 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.”
The U.S. has backed the proposal, saying that a freeze on “provocative actions” in the waters would be helpful in maintaining peace and stability.
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.
Myanmar President Thein Sein, who is hosting the gathering, urged the participants yesterday “to resort to peaceful settlement of disputes and differences.”
Those disputes and differences have intensified since China agreed to negotiate the code of conduct last year. Deadly anti-Chinese riots broke out in Vietnam in May after China placed an oil rig off islands claimed by Vietnam. The Philippines has tried to haul China before an UN tribunal as Chinese ships increasingly operate off its coast.
China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea under its “nine-dash line” map first published in 1947, 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. Its claims have been challenged by other claimants as well as sea law experts for the lack of historical and legal basis.
A report by the state-run China News Agency that China plans to build lighthouses on five South China Sea islands will probably also be construed as further provocation by claimants attending the Asean gatherings.
Japan, which this week renewed its criticism of China’s “assertive” maritime activities around disputed islands in the East China Sea, may use the Asean meeting to try to ease tensions. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Foreign Minister Wang Yi may meet informally during the gathering, Kyodo news agency reported today, citing people familiar with the negotiations. A meeting may lay the groundwork for a summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China’s President Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering in Beijing in November, Kyodo reported Aug. 5.
Asked if he would meet Wang in Myanmar, Kishida said the same day that talks on a summit should be held at all levels and urged China to take part in discussions without pre-conditions.
Xi has so far refused to meet with Abe as relations between Asia’s two biggest economies remained strained over their territorial spat and lingering resentment over Japan militarism in World War II. Tensions intensified last December after Abe visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which honors war-dead, including Class-A war criminals.
Jiang Lifeng, research fellow at the Institute of Japanese Studies and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said a Xi-Abe summit was unlikely.
“They might shake hands in the corridor or say hello to each other, but that’d be all out of sheer politeness,” Jiang said. “Unless Abe makes some gestures ahead of the meeting, such as recognition of the existence of disputes between two countries over the East China Sea islets, or an apology on his shrine visit last year, it’s not possible for Xi to sit down with him to have formal and substantial talks.”