Asean leaders express ‘serious concern’ over escalating disputes in South China Sea
NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar // Southeast Asian leaders have expressed “serious concern” over worsening territorial disputes in the South China Sea, presenting a rare united front against an increasingly assertive Beijing.
Vietnam and the Philippines led a successful push for the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) to deliver a thinly-veiled rebuke to China over the standoff in waters home to key shipping lanes and thought to contain huge energy reserves.
The 10-nation bloc, in a statement released on Monday, called for a peaceful resolution to the maritime rows, which flared up this month after China moved an oil drilling rig into waters also claimed by Hanoi.
Asean is made up of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
“We expressed serious concerns over the ongoing developments in the South China Sea,” said the joint statement from Sunday’s summit in Myanmar, without explicitly pointing the finger at Beijing.
Asean called on all parties involved to “exercise self-restraint, not to resort to threat(s) or use of force, and to resolve disputes by peaceful means in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law”.
Observers said the statement marked a change of tone by the regional bloc, many of whose members, including Myanmar, have close economic and political ties with China and have traditionally avoided confrontation with the Asian heavyweight.
In 2012, China’s ally Cambodia caused consternation when it was head of the bloc, by refusing to take Beijing to task over its assertive maritime stance.
“This is a far cry from when Cambodia was Asean chair,” said South-east Asia expert Carl Thayer.
The statement “represents a slight tightening of Asean’s position”, he said, adding it suggests a rare level of “consensus” on the vexed sea rights issue.
“The statement is so nuanced that it will not offend China but Asean leaders are making it clear that they all share a common concern,” said Thayer, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
There was no immediate response from Beijing.
Under Brunei’s chairmanship last year, China avoided a public rebuke from Asean at a major summit in the oil-flush sultanate after Beijing offered an olive branch by calling for peace in the flashpoint region.
Vietnamese political commentator Nguyen Quang A described the Asean declaration as a “big positive” for his country.
Vietnam lobbied energetically at the latest meeting in Myanmar for a strong statement on the maritime issue from its neighbours.
Prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung slammed Beijing’s oil rig move as “extremely dangerous” and accused Chinese vessels of ramming Vietnamese ships in the disputed waters.
“This is the first time China brazenly brings and installs its drilling rig deep into the continental shelf and exclusive economic zone of an Asean country, which gravely violates the international law,” he said, according to an official transcript of his speech.
The spat triggered large anti-China protests in Vietnam at the weekend that appeared to have the tacit blessing of the authoritarian communist regime in Hanoi, which usually limits expression of public discontent.
The demonstrations also received unprecedented coverage in the country’s tightly controlled state media on Monday.
Mr Quang A said more rallies were likely unless Beijing removes the drilling rig.
“Our fate is that we are situated here, with a big neighbour who always wants expansion,” he said.
China and Vietnam fought a brief border war in 1979 and the pair frequently trade diplomatic barbs over oil exploration, fishing rights and the contested Spratly and Paracel Islands.
Beijing asserts ownership over almost all of the South China Sea, which is also claimed in part by Asean members Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia as well as Taiwan.
Manila, which has asked a UN tribunal to rule on China’s claims over most of the sea, said last Wednesday it had detained a Chinese fishing boat in the disputed territory.
Philippine president Benigno Aquino told reporters after Sunday’s summit that leaders at the summit had voiced concern about the South China Sea disputes, which he said were a “cause for worry and concern by all parties”.