US defence chief Mark Esper urges Asean to push back against China's 'excessive claim' in South China Sea

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper during a press conference at a military camp in Quezon City, the Philippines, on Nov 19, 2019.
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper during a press conference at a military camp in Quezon City, the Philippines, on Nov 19, 2019.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA - US Defence Secretary Mark Esper urged nations in South-east Asia on Tuesday (Nov 19) to stand together and push back against China's "excessive claim" in the South China Sea.

"I think it's incumbent upon all of us to take a very public posture and to assert our sovereign rights and to emphasise the importance of law," Mr Esper told reporters in Manila.

Mr Esper swung by the Philippines after attending the annual Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus in Bangkok on Monday (Nov 18).

He said most of those who came to the meeting "are very concerned about China's excessive claims in the region, that there is a lack of compliance (by China) with international laws and norms".

China must abide by these laws, "and acting collectively is the best way to send that message to get China to the right path", he said.

He had said earlier in Bangkok that Asean must ensure that the "code of conduct" it is negotiating with China would not be "manipulated by (China) to legitimise its egregious behaviour and unlawful maritime claims, or to evade the commitments" it has signed up to.

"If this were to happen, the code of conduct would be counterproductive and harmful to all who value the freedoms enshrined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea".

Asean and China last year agreed on the text that will form the basis of future negotiations on the code of conduct.

The hope is for the code, which is aimed at managing tensions in the South China Sea, to be completed by 2021.

 
 
 
 

Mr Esper said that the US would continue its "freedom of navigation" exercises in disputed waters to make sure China understands that it "rejects attempts by any nation to use coercion and intimidation to advance its national interest at the expense of others".

He reiterated concerns aired in the meeting in Bangkok over "the course and tactics used by Beijing throughout the region to advance its own interests".

He noted that China has "stepped up its use of what it calls 'maritime militia vessels'" to ward off Filipino, Indonesian, Malaysian and Vietnamese sailors and fishermen, as well as employing its coast guard to prevent Vietnam from "drilling oil and natural gas off its own shores".

"Through repeated provocative actions to assert the nine-dash line, Beijing is inhibiting Asean members from accessing over US$2.5 trillion (S$3.4 trillion) in recoverable energy reserves, while contributing to instability and increasing the risk of conflict," he said.

"This behaviour contrasts sharply with the rules-based order we have all worked together to build for more than 70 years," Mr Esper added.

The nine-dash line refers to a demarcation used by China to mark its claim in the South China Sea, which overlaps with those of several Asean countries, namely the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.

The Philippines sought arbitration in 2013 with the international tribunal to challenge China's claim and eventually won the case in 2016.

Beijing rejected the arbitration process and the ruling. It has moved to reclaim disputed features in the South China Sea and fortified them with military installations, and has driven away foreign fishermen, coast guards and militaries.