Southeast Asia feuds over South China Sea

Posted August 10, 2017

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Analysts and some Asean diplomats worry that China's sudden support for negotiating a code of conduct is a ploy to buy time to further boost its military capability.

Critics say the outline of key principles is lopsidedly in China's favor and suspect that Beijing may have consented to it to divert protests as it tries to complete and fortify man-made islands in the South China Sea with a missile defense system.

Critics, however, say the framework serves only as a brief outline of previously agreed principles and fails to mention concerns over China's newly built islands or an arbitration ruling previous year that invalidated Beijing's claims to virtually all of the South China Sea.

In a joint statement following a meeting Monday of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Australian and Japanese counterparts, the three officials "expressed serious concerns over maritime disputes in the South China Sea".

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It said that after extensive discussions, concerns were voiced by some members about land reclamation "and activities in the area which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tension and may undermine peace, security and stability".

The foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations said they warmly welcomed "improving cooperation" with China and were encouraged "by the conclusion and adoption of the framework of a code of conduct in the South China Sea", in a joint communique.

All or parts of the sea are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, which has led to intense territorial disputes and naval standoffs. "China and ASEAN countries have been working together for the past year and we fully recognize that".

Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said the ministers were divided over a US proposal to suspend the North from the ASEAN Regional Forum, which will hold its annual meeting on Monday.

As an important regional organization, ASEAN has become a major force in promoting regional integration and maintaining regional peace and stability, Wang said.

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On Sunday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned any interference from "outside parties" could jeopardise negotiations over the code of conduct.

"There's still no consensus", one of the diplomats said earlier in the day, adding the disagreements over the wordings on the sea issue were holding up the release of the communique.

The ASEAN-China meeting was part of a flurry of one-to-one meetings held Sunday between foreign ministers from the Southeast Asian bloc and top diplomats from other countries including Japan, the United States, India and Russian Federation.

The Philippines scored a major legal victory previous year, when an worldwide tribunal in the Hague threw out most of China's territorial claims, but since the election of President Rodrigo Duterte, Manila has become less confrontational with Beijing.

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