Beijing gets its own way in ASEAN chair's statement

Cheryl Sanders
May 11, 2017

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has raised the prospects of holding joint exercises with China as Manila seems to be distancing itself from its traditional ally, the United States.

ASEAN member states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have claims that overlap those of China in the South China Sea through which much global commerce passes, and where marine resources, and potentially oil and gas deposits, are abundant.

In the chairman statement issued at the end of the Asean Summit here yesterday, a proposed reference to full respect for legal and diplomatic processes has been taken out from the South China Sea section, a move seen by some senior Asean officials as silencing an worldwide arbitral court backing Manila's claims in the area.

"We recognized the long-term benefits that would be gained from having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability and sustainable development", they said in a statement released a day after the 30th ASEAN Summit held here.

Najib said Malaysia has also committed to continue assisting in the process to conclude the "Comprehensive Peace Plan" involving the bangsa moro.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of ASEAN.

A statement on Sunday from Cambodia's Foreign Affairs Ministry expressed hope that negotiations with China for a maritime "code of conduct" in the South China Sea, which have been ongoing for 15 years, would yield positive results. It noted some leaders' concerns about "recent developments". It also endorsed full implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea and completion of a code of conduct over the disputed area by mid-2017.

"It clearly reflected how the issue was discussed".

Former Philippine officials who dealt with the disputes say Duterte's concessions to China could weaken the ability of the Philippines and other ASEAN member states to seek Chinese compliance to the arbitration ruling and curb Beijing's increasingly assertive behavior in the disputed waters.

China has sparked regional concern by turning reefs and shoals in contested areas into artificial islands, installing military facilities and air strips on some of them.

China says almost the entire South China Sea falls within its territory, with half a dozen other countries maintaining partially overlapping claims.

China can execute their military exercises in Philippines.

Mr Duterte, who has been warming his country's once frosty relations with China, said on Thursday it was pointless to discuss China's island-building in the South China Sea and the tribunal's ruling, calling both a "non-issue".

"One miscalculation of any missile, one that hits somebody will cause a catastrophe", he told a press conference after chairing the 30th Asean Summit.

He called for joint efforts to halt extremism and piracy, and several times stressed the importance of non-interference in a country's affairs.

China continues to reject a ruling issued by an worldwide arbitration court in The Hague a year ago that invalidated its sweeping claims over nearly the entire South China Sea, though Duterte's administration has opted not to push for China's compliance, in the hope of forging closer economic ties.

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