30 Apr 2017

ASEAN keeps pointedly silent on South China Sea

8:41 pm on 30 April 2017

China has been given a pass over the South China Sea disputes by South East Asian countries in a statement after the ASEAN summit this weekend.

An aerial photo shows Thitu Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea.

An aerial photo shows Thitu Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

A chairman's statement from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was released about 12 hours after the summit ended, and dropped references to "land reclamation and militarization" included in the statement issued at last year's meeting and in an unpublished earlier version of this year's.

The statement went easy on China by avoiding tacit references to its building and arming of its manmade islands.

China is not a member of the 10-member bloc and did not attend the summit, but is extremely sensitive about the content of its statements.

It has often been accused of trying to influence the drafts to muzzle what it sees as dissent and challenges to its sweeping sovereignty claim.

China's embassy in Manila could not be reached and its foreign ministry did not respond to request for comment on Saturday.

The statement also noted "the improving cooperation between ASEAN and China", and did not include references to "tensions" or "escalation of activities" seen in earlier drafts and in last year's text.

It noted, without elaborating, some leaders' concerns about "recent developments" in the strategic, resource-rich waterway.

Beijing has reacted angrily to individual members expressing their concern about its rapid reclamation of reefs in the Spratlys and its installation of missile systems on them.

Another ASEAN diplomat said the statement was a genuine representation of the atmosphere of the Manila meetings.

"We respected the Philippines' views and cooperated," the diplomat said. "It clearly reflected how the issue was discussed."

Philippines cosies up to China

The softened statement comes as the current ASEAN chairman, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, seeks to bury the hatchet with China after years of wrangling over its maritime assertiveness.

After lobbying from Mr Duterte, China agreed to let Filipinos back to the rich fishing ground of the Scarborough Shoal following a four-year blockade.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte Photo: AFP

The no-nonsense leader set the tone for the meeting on Thursday when he said it was pointless discussing China's maritime activities, because no one dared to pressure Beijing anyway.

As a sign of Mr Duterte's friendship with Beijing, three Chinese navy vessels on Sunday made a rare visit to the Philippines. Mr Duterte will inspect a guided-missile destroyer in his hometown of Davao on Monday.

His foreign policy strategy is a stunning reversal of that of the previous administration, which had close ties with the United States and was seen by China as a nuisance.

That Philippines government in 2013 challenged Beijing by lodging a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013.

Two weeks into Mr Duterte's presidency last year, the Hague court ruled in favour of the Philippines, angering China. But he has made clear he would not press Beijing to comply any time soon, and is more interested in doing business than sparring.

The final chairman's statement made no mention to the arbitration case. However, it did include in a section, separate to the South China Sea chapter, about the need to show "full respect for legal and diplomatic processes" in resolving disputes.

Underlining Beijing's sensitivity about the arbitration award, two diplomatic sources on Saturday said Chinese embassy officials had lobbied behind the scenes for that sentence to be dropped, and considered it a veiled reference to the ruling.

One diplomat indicated that ongoing moves between China and ASEAN to draft a framework for negotiating a maritime code of conduct may have been a factor in agreeing the softened statement.

All sides want to complete the framework this year, although there is some scepticism that China would agree to a set of rules that could curtail its geostrategic interests.

Meanwhile, it emerged US President Donald Trump has again invited Mr Duterte to the White House during a phone call on Saturday that also addressed concerns over North Korea.

The White House made a statement that gave no details of when the leaders would meet in Washington to discuss their alliance, but said Mr Trump looked forward to visiting the Philippines in November as part of two summits with other Asian nations.

The pair have had a mixed relationship, with Mr Duterte - a maverick former mayor who, like Mr Trump, was elected last year on a wave of public disenchantment - having previously threatened to sever defence ties between the two allies.

- Reuters

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