South China Sea issue likely to take a backseat as Asean ministers' meeting begins

A policeman walks past various national flags at the venue of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Manila, on Aug 3, 2017.
A policeman walks past various national flags at the venue of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Manila, on Aug 3, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - With North Korea and the threat of terrorism front and centre, the South China Sea disputes are taking a backseat in this week's gathering of  Asean ministers.

The disputes have, in the past, led to discord among the 10 Asean member states.

But a "soft draft" of a joint Asean communique, to be issued at the end of a foreign ministers' meeting here, is silent on China's artificial islands in the disputed waters.

The closest reference to the islands is a line calling on all claimants to "avoid unilateral actions in disputed features that may further complicate the situation in keeping with the principle of peaceful resolution of disputes without resorting to the threat or use of force".

Instead, the ministers are expected to "reaffirm the importance of enhancing mutual trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities".

They will also seek the "early operationalisation" of "early harvest measures", specifically the "Joint Statement on the Application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea".

Philippine Foreign Affairs spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said on Thursday (Aug 3) that the joint communique "in every likelihood could still evolve".

But diplomatic sources say that with Asean's attention turned to North Korea and the threat of Islamist extremism in the region, the ministers are likely to merely "note" concerns over China's purported militarisation of its islands in the South China Sea.

The United States is pressing Asean to "downgrade diplomatic engagements and exchanges" with North Korea as it seeks to build a "chorus of condemnation" ahead of the Asean Regional Forum meeting on Monday in Manila.

The US and North Korea's main ally, China, have been wrestling with how best to respond to North Korea's two intercontinental ballistic missile tests, which deepened global fears that the missiles would be able to strike the US mainland.

The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, meanwhile, are grappling with the spread of Islamist extremism, inspired by a war between government forces and Muslim militants for the southern Philippine city of Marawi that has dragged on and is in its third month.

Asean's ministers are, however, set to "celebrate" a two-page "framework" of a code of conduct (COC) meant to prevent conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea from erupting into violent confrontations. It will neither guarantee a legally binding arrangement nor raise specific issues that have provoked Beijing.

The final document, seen by reporters, envisions a code that is "rules-based", with "a set of norms to guide the parties and promote maritime cooperation" in disputed waters.

The ministers are set to endorse the framework on Sunday.

The framework emphasises that the COC "is not an instrument to settle territorial disputes or maritime delimitation issues".

But United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is hoping the sea disputes will remain a focus of the meetings, according to one of his top aides.

"It'll certainly be a focus of the discussion also in Manila...if there's a perception that it's dropped off, it's only probably because the North Koreans keep shooting missiles and undertaking other provocations that knock this out of the front of people's minds," Ms Susan Thornton, the acting US assistant secretary of state, told reporters in Washington.