Asean presses peaceful resolution of territorial conflicts

Asean leaders posing for a group photo ahead of the Asean leaders' summit in Manila on April 29, 2017.
Asean leaders posing for a group photo ahead of the Asean leaders' summit in Manila on April 29, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - South-east Asia leaders issued a statement on Sunday (April 30) reiterating their call for the "peaceful resolution of disputes" in the South China Sea, half a day after the closing of the Asean summit in Manila on Saturday.

The statement took a softer stance, despite pressure from some diplomats at the summit to include references to China's island-building and weapons deployment in the strategic waterway.

It also did not touch on an international tribunal's ruling on a case filed by the Philippines, which had struck down Beijing's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea.

"We reaffirmed the importance of the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint in the conduct of the activities, and avoiding actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursuing the peaceful resolution of disputes, without resorting to the threat or use of force," the statement said.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, as Asean chair, was supposed to read out the statement during a news conference on Saturday night, but the statement was released only 12 hours later.

An earlier draft seen by The Straits Times had contained a mention of Asean's leaders seeking a halt to actions, "such as land reclamation and militarisation, that may further complicate the situation" in the South China Sea. But this was taken out in the final statement.

China has built sprawling islands on seven reefs in the Spratly island chain in the southern half of the South China Sea. At least three of the islands have airstrips, as well as surface-to-air missiles, surface-to-surface artillery and other weapons systems.

A diplomatic source told The Straits Times that one delegation had spoken about the reference to China's actions in the South China Sea during the summit.

This delegation also e-mailed their comments after the Philippines circulated a draft of the Asean chair's statement.

Mr Duterte, as Asean chair, ultimately determined what went into the statement.

Mr Duterte, who has improved his country's relations with China since taking office, said on Thursday that it was pointless to discuss China's island-building in the South China Sea and the tribunal's ruling, calling both a "non-issue".

"It can't be an issue anymore. It's already there. What will be the purpose of discussing it if you can't do anything about it?" he said, referring to China's islands in the Spratlys.

In his news conference on Saturday, Mr Duterte instead backed efforts to conclude a framework for a "code of conduct" designed to prevent conflicts at sea among the South China Sea claimants. He said the target was to complete the framework "at the very least before the end of this year".

"We recognised the long-term benefits that would be gained from having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability and sustainable development," he said in his statement as Asean chair.

The statement also took note of the progress that has been made, for example, with practical measures such as the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea and hotlines between Asean and China.

Agreeing with the Asean chair's statement, Mr Wilfrido Villacorta, former Philippine ambassador to Asean, told Bloomberg that "closer relations with China has lent itself to a more cohesive Asean and promises to prevent war and escalated conflict in our part of the world".

But for many analysts, including Mr Richard Heydarian, a political analyst with the Manila-based De La Salle University, Mr Duterte's softer approach, while pleasing China, is creating some grumbling within Asean itself.

The Philippines' departure from its "robust position" on the South China Sea just a year ago "is creating deep frustration among major (Asean) founders", he told The Straits Times.

rdancel@sph.com.sg