MANILA - South-east Asian leaders will express “serious concerns” over an “escalation of activities” in the South China Sea, and are expected to push for a stop to land reclamation and militarisation of the strategic waterway at the end of their talks on Saturday (April 29), in a move likely to frustrate Beijing.
As expected, a draft Asean document avoided mentioning an international tribunal’s ruling on a case filed by the Philippines striking down Beijing’s claims to nearly all of the South China Sea.
The draft statement, to be read by Asean Chairman and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at the closing of the 30th Asean summit, also said the leaders were “gravely concerned” over North Korea’s nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches, repeating a statement issued on Friday by their foreign ministers.
They also condemned terrorism and violent extremism “in all its forms and manifestations”.
“We took note of the serious concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments and escalation of activities (in the South China Sea), which may further raise tensions and erode trust and confidence in the region,” the draft statement read.
It emphasised avoiding actions “such as land reclamation and militarisation that may further complicate the situation”, reiterating the concern expressed in past Asean communiques.
“We welcomed the operationalisation of the joint statement on the application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) … and the guidelines for hotline communications among senior officials of… Asean member states and China,” it said.
Diplomatic sources said Chinese embassy representatives had sought to omit “land reclamation and militarisation” in the final draft by lobbying Philippine officials. But four Asean member states disagreed.
The version Mr Duterte will read has yet to be agreed on, but the changes so far indicate that Asean is resisting moves by China to keep its contentious activities in the strategic waterway off the bloc's official agenda.
Chinese officials have also pressed to remove any references to the South China Sea ruling, particularly the phrase “full respect of legal and diplomatic processes”.
The latest draft still includes that, although it was moved from the "South China Sea" section to the “Asean Community Vision” section, according to Reuters.
Mr Duterte, who has been warming the Philippines’ once frosty relations with China, 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 as 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 seven islands China has built in the Spratlys archipelago.
On the arbitration tribunal’s decision, he remarked: “Stop dreaming about arbitral, arbitral. Unless we are prepared to go to war.”
He said the tribunal’s decision “is simply on entitlement, not even territory. It’s a non-issue. Why press it? We cannot, on our own, enforce the arbitral judgment”.
Mr Duterte has set aside the South China Sea ruling, handed down in 2016 on a case initiated in 2013 by his predecessor Benigno Aquino, as he seeks investments and loans from Beijing to help with his anti-crime drive and ambitious infrastructure spending programme.
China’s claims are being challenged also by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.