Analysis by Kalinga Seneviratne
SINGAPORE (IDN) - Announcement by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in the Laotian capital Vientiane on April 23 that a four-point agreement has been reached with three ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) member states on the disputes over some islands, rocks and shoals in the South China Sea (SCS) ahead of a China-ASEAN summit in Singapore, has exposed divisions among the 10-member regional grouping on the issue.
The SCS dispute which first entered ASEAN forums during the 2010 ASEAN Summit in Vietnam, when the then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the issue during a speech, has increased in intensity in recent years with the U.S. and Japan along with its ally the Philippines fanning the flames, while China has responded with some aggressive moves of its own.
Philippines has taken the issue of overlapping ownership of small islands in SCS to international arbitration and the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is due to give its verdict in June. China however has refused to take part in the court case and has indicated its unwillingness to accept arbitration, insisting that such disputes have to be negotiated and settled by affected countries and not by outside bodies.
The four-point consensus reached with the three ASEAN members – Brunei, Cambodia and Laos – says that the SCS dispute is “not an issue of China and ASEAN as a whole” and the territorial and maritime issues must be resolved through consultations and negotiations by the parties directly concerned.
In their consensus, the three countries and China agreed, according to China’s Xinhua news agency, that they should oppose attempts to “unilaterally impose an agenda on other countries” and agreed on rights of sovereign states to resolve their disputes between themselves under international law.
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post (SCMP) quoted a Chinese foreign ministry statement that said the South China Sea problem was not a China-ASEAN dispute and the agreement “should not affect China-ASEAN relations”.
But, Singapore’s Staits Times quoting an unnamed ASEAN diplomatic source said: “China is quite worried that ASEAN will make some sort of joint statement after arbitration decision comes out” and thus they have been wooing “ASEAN’s most compliant members”.
Four members of the 10-member ASEAN – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei – have rival claims to parts of the South China Sea with China, which claims that virtually the entire sea belongs to it. China is the biggest trade partner of many ASEAN nations and China’s maritime claims are the regional bloc’s most contentious issue, as its members struggle to balance their claims against growing economic relations with Beijing.
ASEAN said in a rare statement on the issue in February 2016 that land reclamation and escalating activity had increased tension and could undermine peace, security and stability in the region.
Zhang Jie, a Southeast Asian affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has been quoted by SCMP as saying that China was facing mounting pressure to solicit diplomatic support ahead of the UN arbitration court ruling.
“With Europe and the G7 taking the side of the U.S., it is crucial to China how ASEAN takes the arbitration,” she said. “China could claim victory if ASEAN did not mention China by name, or did it in an inexplicit way in expressing its stance on the issue.”
Laos, which chairs ASEAN this year with its annual summit due to take place in Vientiane later in the year will have influence in setting the agenda, and Beijing is expected to draw support from some of the other members states such as Thailand and Cambodia, and now possibly Brunei.
Interestingly, the current front runner in the Philippines Presidential elections – taking place on May 9 – Rodrigo Duterte has hinted in the campaign trail that he would be open to direct negotiations with China.
Tension between the Philippines and China escalated when a Japanese warship sailed into the disputed waters in the area raising fears in China that the second world war foes could be getting into a military alliance to contain China.
The Hyuga-class helicopter carrier Ise docked in Subic Bay on April 26 while on a “navigational training” mission, according to the ship’s captain. It marked the second time in just over three weeks that Japanese naval vessels visited Subic Bay, a former major U.S. naval base that lies around 200km from a Chinese-controlled shoal.
“We want to deepen the relationship with the Philippines,” Ise Captain Masaki Takada told reporters, who were given a tour of the vessel.
In February this year, Japan agreed to supply the Philippines with military hardware, which officials said may include anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft and radar technology.
Earlier in April, the Philippines Ambassador to the United States, Jose Cuisia told members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Manila that the Philippines will be getting the biggest military aid package in 15 years from the U.S. to beef up its ill-equipped armed forces. He said the package will be worth $120 million.
During a visit to America’s old foe Vietnam in April, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken questioned China's intentions over its land reclamation project. He said on April 21 in Hanoi that China's land reclamation project and increasing militarization of the outposts fuel regional tension and the United States will continue to sail, fly, and operate anywhere that international law allows.
China responded by cautioning the U.S. to be discreet in its words and deeds in regard to the SCS issue. The deployment of necessary defence facilities on islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands falls under China's sovereignty and the country is exercising its rights of self-protection and self-defence granted by international law, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying reminded the U.S. at a regular news briefing in Beijing on April 22.
China has always respected and supported countries in exercising freedom of navigation and flight in the South China Sea in line with international law, Hua said. But, she reiterated that China firmly opposes countries that threaten and harm the sovereignty and security of coastal countries under the pretext of freedom of navigation and flight.
She described U.S. action as “freedom of intrusion by U.S. military planes and vessels" which China will not accept. "The United States has repeatedly questioned China's intentions, but will the U.S. explain its real motive in stoking tensions and increasing military presence in the area?" asked Hua.
Hua also pointed out that the U.S. introduced the freedom of navigation plan in 1979, before signing the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which she said was an attempt by Washington to safeguard its maritime military interests without signing the treaty. “That underscored Washington’s selective use of international conventions and its attitude of exceptionalism,” she said.
In recent months, China has intensified its offensive against the expected negative verdict from the UN court in The Hague. A communiqué issued after a meeting of Foreign Ministers from China, India and Russia on April 18 in Moscow stated that all disputes in the South China Sea should be addressed through negotiations and agreements between the parties concerned.
Referring to the consensus between China and the three ASEAN member states, Nanjing University analyst Zhu Fend told the Straits Times: “ASEAN members are not united on many issues, including South China Sea. What China is doing is simply showing there is more than one voice on this issue, coming even from Brunei, a claimant state.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 27 April 2016]
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Photo: ASEAN Flags. Credit: ASEAN